Centre Roland Mousnier
University of Warwick - 24 November 2014
HI203: The Unfolding of the European Reformation
You have had lectures about Luther, about Calvin, and about the Radical Reformation. Next week’s lectures are devoted to the Catholic, or Counter-Reformation. My task is to give shape to the notion of ‘the European Reformation’, to put the different pieces together. Reformation as ‘renewal’ is hard-wired into Christianity. It starts with baptism as a ‘second birth’, when Christians renounce the works of the Devil and turn to Christ. It continues with conversion, an ongoing theme in Christian history. For the church, ‘renewal’ was embodied in the efforts of a succession of councils of the church to secure its reform. So the first point is a paradox. On the one hand, reformation was part of an ongoing Christian tradition. On the other hand, the Protestant Reformation was something unique. That something was a permanent schism in Western Christendom which has no parallel in Eastern Christianity. The schism was messy, long drawn-out, and fundamentally divisive. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book entitled Reformation on your reading-list has as its subtitle: ‘Europe’s House Divided’(*). If you read its 830 pages you will see why that messy divisiveness is complicated to analyse and explain. My own book presents the Reformation as a key component in the destruction of Christendom, the project which had united Europeans for over a millennium. But it does so by showing it as interweaved with everything else (740pp). John Bossy, in a powerful little book Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 hardly uses the term at all.(*) For ‘Reformation’ in the index, the first subheading is: ‘term discussed’. Look up that page and Bossy writes: ‘That something important happened in the sixteenth century is evident, and the term “Reformation” is probably as good a guide to investigating what it was’. But it should be used, he says, as sparingly as possible,’not simply simply because it goes along too easily with the notion that a bad form of Christianity was being replaced by a good one, but because it sits awkwardly across the subject without directing one’s attention anywhere in particular’.
Here is a second paradox. We use the term ‘Reformation’ to describe a unique event, but we also use it to delineate a process. Patrick Collinson’s The Reformation (which, at 200 pages, offers a Reformation for Dummies which is hard to beat (*) puts it in a nutshell: ‘There is a tension here between event and process which, presented onto a larger screen is the tension between the Reformation as part of the continuum of history and the Reformation as an extraordinary historical moment - as it were, a meteor strike at history’). That meteor struck somewhere between 1515 and 1523, in the Rhineland, in Wittenberg, and in Zurich. But it became the beginning of a long, dynamic evolution, with its own chronology and geography, in which the Reformation takes on many different colours and textures. In the process, it decomposed. It became a Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, Anabaptist, radical, urban, rural, refugee, ‘further’, Counter- reformation - different flavours of Reformation, like ice-cream. But you will notice that all the books on your reading-list continue to refer to something ‘singular’ (the Reformation). Thar is because it is an accepted way of looking at things. But it is also historically useful to have a term for referring to a complex basket of things. In this instance, the basket could as easily be labelled religious change and its impact.
(*) To try and analyse these processes further, it helps to imagine what happens in terms of generational change. A generation was typically seen as 30 years long, but I have stretched the periods a bit here and there to present something of what I see as something of the evolution of the Reformation, from schism and chaotic dynamism, through its attempted repression, reactions to that repression, and a process of consolidation of its impact, to the period of the wars of religion, a period which was also accompanied by experiments in religious pluralism. When does the Reformation end though? That is the wrong question, for processes do not have endings. You will notice that those historians we have mentioned have different chronologies. Maculloch ends in 1700, Greengrass in 1618/1648, Collinson with the onset of the Enlightenment towards the end of the 17C. With its contradictory tensions, the Reformation was chronologically and geographically unstable, going in fits and starts, offering local divergences and variable geometries. Because its unfolding was the result of a multiple series of negotiations, of the outcome of contrary tensions, there was no end to it. Rather those negotiations were overlaid by other concerns and different imperatives in the period that we know as the Enlightenment. Here is an important point, through. The longer the time-frame that we allow for the processes of the Reformation, the more it is that what we ascribe as occurring directly because of the Reformation is actually because of what happened intermediately, or for other reasons. The longer the time-frame we give the Reformation, the less certain we can be that what we are trying to analyse is actually about the Reformation at all.
(*) The dynamics of the Reformation were multi-layered, driven by forces which were in tension with one other. One layer was political and polemical, operating at the short and mediumm term. Here the forces of the Reformation were those which, on the one hand, could be manipulated by rulers, and which strengthened the authority of the state. On the other hand, the forces of the Reformation destabilised established political authority, creating dissident minorities, which threatened the forces which legitimised the state, embittered political processes, and fomented ‘wars of religion’, and promulgated (on the basis of older notions) doctrines of legitimate resistance to wrongfully exercised rule,. The unfolding of the Reformation was therefore one in which the outcomes were uncertain, debated and contradictory. Then there was a layer which was confessionally configured: a Reformation which was Lutheran, Zwinglio-Calvinist (in due course ‘Reformed’), Radical, etc. This layer, too, had its contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there were the processes of ‘confessionalisation’. This is an English term which translates the German ‘Konfessionalisierung’. The confessions involved were not simply Catholic and Protestant, of course. There were Lutheran and Calvinist, Gallican, Belgic, Anglican, Anabaptist, Mennonite, Quaker, etc. The term is used to describe the impact of the desire to unify beliefs around a territorial unity - the imposition of the same religious observances, saying the same psalms in the same way, the same prayers, according to the same calendar. The process was more marked because the enlargement of state control over Church affairs was a growing reality in the post-Reformation. Not only did states assume a greater role in the appointment and supervision of clerics, they also took on responsibilities for poor relief, education and the daily lives of their subjects through police regulations governing marriage, family life and moral beahaviour in public. In some places, this amounted to a conscious process of state-building - bureaucratic, top-down conformity. Confessionalisation became a way of projecting a sharper sense of religious conceived identity - whether in the hands of aristocrats who sought to rally support for their cause, or in those of godly rulers, presenting themselves as leading an elect nation. Confessionalisation would be at its strongest wherever state churches prevailed, and where a religious confession became aligned with the authority of a ruler. On the other hand, confessionalisation could be thwarted by the existence of religious minorities which were too entrenched to be eradicated, and by the rural world, which often proved stubbornly resistant to being acculturated to religious changes. The Reformation strengthened the hand of rulers in smaller and medium sized states. Top-down bureaucratic confessionalisation was much less successful in larger entities like Elizabethan England. Very often churches and states had to adapt to the uncomfortable and difficult reality of religious pluralism, and the pragmatic compromises which resulted from it. They had to accept the limits of the possible within political frameworks which allowed elites (aristocrats, local magistrates, bishops, law officers and church officials) a say in what happened, and who might or might not be persuaded by the imperatives of confessional unity. Instability was a fundamental component of the unfolding of the Reformation because the compromises that the ecclesiastical and confessional settlements rested upon in practice were inherently instable, dependent on the skills of those who initiated and implemented them, and the forces which put them in place. Instability was inbuilt into the processes of Reformation by the dominant dynastic nature of European rule, and the fact that Europe’s dynastic houses were split along religious lines, some (like the Tudors, or the Bourbon) within their core and main collateral lines, others (more numerously) through marriages which crossed confessions for political and dynastic reasons.
Further layers of these contradictory processes of Reformation lay in the cultural implantation of the Reformation, which played out more in the medium and long-term. This is the most contradictory for historians to analyse because it happened over a time-scale which stretches beyond our four generations. These are ‘open questions’. To what extent, if at all, did the Reformation change relationships within the family, and towards women and children? On the one hand, Luther’s own marriage became a media event. His theology of gender, which sanctified marriage, became a subject of polemic in its own right in the 1520s. On the other hand, the Reformation progresively inscribed itself in the increasingly strident voices and values of patriarchy and promoted the image of the godly household, in where life was supposed to be structured life around domestic prayers, a grace before meals, discreet religious imagery around the hearth, etc.(*) Religious themes and images inspired generations of domestic art and artefacts - reminding us that religion was not just what went on in church. (*) The Biblical nature of the themes were more pronounced, but there were continuities with the pre-Reformation world. And it would not be impossible to find such images in parts of urban Catholic Europe, from the Southern Netherlands for example, or from Venice. Although the Protestant Reformation removed marriage from one of the church sacraments, thus opening the door to the possibility of divorce (*) in practice, divorce was strongly discouraged by Protestant jurisdictions. Protestantism minimised the role for women within the sphere of organised religion. The closure of monasteries and nunneries was presented by the Protestant reformers as an act of liberation. It was certainly more complicated than that. The evidence suggests that the conventual life could provide a zone of fulfilment and influence for women.
To what extent, and how, did the Reformation influence the patterns of literacy? Literacy was not the preserve of Protestants. The pressures to become literate and numerate were not uniquely religious-inspired. Some of the highest rates of literacy in Europe in the seventeenth century occur in unlikely places - Sweden, for example, or the rural Cévennes in southern France. In the latter case, they seem to be not so much the result of the Protestant Reformation as the contesting forces of Catholic and Protestant missions in this frontier zone between the confessions, leading to huge investment in education as a way of indoctrination to a faith. The Protestant Reformation attracted the literate to its cause, so it is not really surprising that it should appear, then, to have sponsored it. (*) There was considerable imagination, it is true, invested by Protestants, in using literate devices tol internalise the beliefs contained in its confessions and creeds. But there was considerable mimeticism ini using such techniques - catechisms, hymns, plays, etc. - between the Catholic and Protestant Reformations. (*) And some of this effort was deployed because, so it seems, some Protestant beliefs - notably the emphasis on the Ten Commandments (*) or, in later sixteenth-centtury orthodox Calvinist circles upon God’s predestination, (*) God’s foreknowledge that some of us were condemned as sinners, whereas others were saved as the elect - got a cold reception among believing congregations, wondering whether they were elect or damned.
Did the processes of Reformation create, among various confessional groups, new taboos - towards religious images or music, for example? The answer to that question has to be nuanced because the Protestant Reformation contained, as we shall see, very different attitudes towards images and music in religion. And there was a big discrepancy between what was preached and taught, and what happened in people’s homes, where (as we have seen) religious images continued to play an important part in their lives. Did the different ways of expressing religious belief profoundly affect the way that people expressed their fears and hopes? Did it increase the sense of God’s presence in the world? And that of the devil too? Did it desacralise the landscape by abolishing pilgrimage sites, holy wells, places of miraculous cure? There was doubtless some relationship between the massive increase in prosecutions for witchcraft in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Europe and the impact of the Protestant Reformation. But the pattern of prosecutions was not confessionally related. Witchcraft was prosecuted as readily in Protestant as Catholic Europe. And the relationship may have something to do with the anxieties provoked by fundamental divisions, of which the Protestant Reformation was only one part, and with the transfer of jurisdictional responsibility for the prosecution of witchcraft to states, of which, again, the Reformation was only partly responsible.
To what extent did the Reformation change people’s relationship towards money and wealth, towards work and leisure? The great German sociologist Max Weber at the turn of the twentieth century offered a conceptually sophisticated framework and some evidence to suggest that there was a relationship between Calvinist Protestantism and Capitalism. His argument was not that the one caused the other, but that there was an ‘elective affinity’ (by which he meant ‘certain correlations between forms of religious belief and practical ethics’) between one sort of Reformation and the attitudes which it generated among its adherents towards the rewards of work and investment. The evidence which he adduced in support of it, however, came from the nineteenth-century Rhineland. That highlights the difficulty we have in understanding the cultural impact of the Reformation over the very long term. For so much happened in Europe outwith the Reformation to explain the economic success of what turned out to be Protestant, Northern Europe which had nothing to do with the Reformation. And when it did have something to do with it, it was as a result of the political and geographical processes of reformation, for example, to the concentrations of skill and capital created by the enforced movement of peoples created by the political tensions of the Reformation - in the movement of Calvinists from the southern Netherlands to the Northern Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, or the emigration of Huguenots from France at the end of the seventeenth century. It might not have so much to do, then, with the social morality inculcated by Protestant beliefs as such. So these are ‘open’ questions, worth discussing (and I have just indicated one or two of the many issues one could raise in relation to the Reformation), but in the context of literacy, of witchcraft, of wealth, of domestic life. They are open because the processes of the Reformation contained fundamentally divergent tendencies, and because they are long-term.
What of the geo-politics of the European Reformation? Its fundamental dynamics had begun to emerge early on in German and Swiss lands in the explosive first decade of the 1520s. The Reformation meant different things to different people, spreading through multiple media and bringing fresh political players into action. (*) The exodus of monks and nuns from monasteries, the controversies raised by clerical marriages, and the polemic against priests’ ‘whores’ (concubines), symbolising the corrupt old church, imbued the early reformation with a sense of liberation, a sizzling sexual energy which the disturbing nudes of the Wittenberg painter, Lucas Cranach, (*) Luther’s long-standing friend and supporter, reflected. Without willing it, Luther became a touchstone of Reformation, in Wittenberg, among the officials of the electorate of Saxony, among the humanists of the Rhineland and in southern German cities, he had supporters. Among the members of his own Augustinian Order, as well as more widely among the preaching clergy, his message vibrated ouwards. The processes of the Protestant Reformation are laid out in the printed pamphlets (Flugschriften) which accompanied its first decade in German-speaking lands. Produced in handy formats, and distributed on a regional basis, they sold into a competitive market. More than half of those of which we have a copy were only 8 pages long, and cost a sixth of the daily wage of an artisan apprentice. Woodcuts were used to illustrate the title-page on about three quarters of them. The variety of literary forms testify to their being derived from other means of communication - sermons, letters, poems, songs, prayers, complaints and petitions. Although religious themes predominated, other subjects impinged too - the war against the Turks, the uprising of the commons, miraculous signs and prophecies, and usury. Over 10,000 pamphlet titles are known to have been published in German lands in the 1520s, although the vast majority of them had appeared by 1527. There were possibly about 3 million pamphlet copies in circulation by 1525. For a population of 12 million, that figure sounds modest, but in relation to those who could read it was impressive. Despite the impact of the Reformation elsewhere in Europe, nowhere experienced this intensity of printed output. Only perhaps in Calvin’s Geneva in the late 1550s and 1560s would printing and the Reformation converge on the same scale.
Pamphlets were not the sole, or even the most important, means of evangelical (the word saves us calling them ‘Lutheran’ because they were not yet that) persuasion. The early evangelical preachers were perhaps the most effective communicators of all. They dramatized the moment, speaking to audiences of this as a ‘golden and joyous’ time, when the ‘gospel has been set free’ to ‘the whole world’, which had previously been ‘denied Christ’. God himself was now at work, and the Last Judgment and the Kingdom were close at hand. The true Church, they implied, lay in the community of the faithful. The Gospel did not belong to the priests. Laymen (and laywomen) were equal to, or even superior to, priests in faith. The church did not need to be wealthy. It should serve the community. Priests should be appointed by, and responsible to, local communities.
Luther offered no Reformation blueprint. His invitation to local Christian congregations to work it out for themselves called other actors into play and, in the evangelical movement of the 1520s, they grafted his message onto their own concerns and objectives. In Zurich in Switzerland, Zwingli put in place a model of Reformation led by urban magistrates. In both Germany and Switzerland, however, the result was the same: division and bloodshed. The dynamics of this early Reformation - played out in city after city, in the massive peasant insurrection known as the Great Peasants’ war which transfixed German lands in 1524-5/6, and in the emerging radical margins - emphasized two realities. The first was that religious change was capable of creating an alternative vision of the political and social future. The second was that the Reformation set in train broad coalitions for that change. In the rural world, these were short-lived, but in the urban world the trends were more varied. Where coalitions with a head of steam from artisans and householders were led by agitators prepared to outface the authorities, the movement for religious reform succeeded in displacing the existing regime. Where well-organized coalitions met a less implacable regime, the result tended to be a negotiated settlement and a more gradual transition towards a Reformed Church order in which the old guard embraced the new coalition and defused it. Where coalitions were weak and poorly led, and faced determined opposition, they failed. As the cycles of social and political urban ferment worked their way through, the outcome was a series of political and religious compromises.
By the late 1520s, the results were beginning to emerge in German and Swiss lands. The magistrates in many imperial cities in central Germany, the Rhineland, south-western Germany, and the Swiss cantons of Bern and Zurich, legislated to accept the Protestant nReformation. In southern Germany, the movement was held in check. In northern Germany and the Baltic coast, the evangelical movement was only just beginning. Princes, too, believed that they had a moral and political mandate from the Empire to determine the religion of their subjects - a ‘ius reformandi’ (a right of reformation). On that basis, Philip of Hesse and John the Constant of Saxony set about framing the establishment of territorial churches in their dominions, with Luther offering them the justification for why a ruler, divinely ordained, had the Christian duty to promote the Gospel in his lands. The results were the first territorial Reformations led by princes. Luther collaborated with the prince of Electoral Saxony to elaborate a Lutheran model of ecclesiastical organisation (*) which was widely copied elsewhere. Church services were standardized around Luther’s German Mass. Monastic and church wealth were administered by secular authorities, who also appointed evangelical pastors. A regular process of parochial visitation was instigated, taking princely control of the Reformation into the parishes. Luther set out what became its canonical beliefs in two catechisms in 1529, one for use by theological students, training to be Lutheran pastors, and other for use in domestic environments and schools.
That was important because the religious changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries transformed what religious belief was about. Pre-Reformation Christianity was one where the people of Christendom were invited to participate in God’s work of redeeming his creation, through acts of penance, pilgrimages, gifts and exercises. In post-Reformation Europe, truth become what God declared it to be in the Scriptures, embodied in creeds and confessions, statements to which people swore their allegiance, and lived out in confessionally configured communities where the instruments of public authority structured and monitored people’s lives and behaviours.
These princes, with 14 imperial German cities, signed the ‘Protest’ on 19 July 1529 which gave its name to ‘Protestantism’ against a decision of the German Diet (its Parliament) to roll back the changes which had occurred over the previous decade. The following year (1530), the Protestants presented their Lutheran ‘Confession’ to the Diet at Augsburg. But a separate group of Rhineland states and southwest German cities, areas where Zwinglianism had gained its adherents, submitted a separate confession, known as the ‘Tetrapolitana’ (after the four cities in whose name it was presented: Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen and Lindau). The Lutheran Reformation had become a distinct entity which, a year later, acquired its political wing in the Schmalkaldic League, a transregional confessional alignment with its own treasury, troops, meetings and foreign policy to protect and advance the interests of the Lutherans. Although the Emperor Charles V tried to reverse the creeping advance of Lutheranism by military force in the Schmalkaldic War (1547-8), his efforts turned into a pyrrhic victory and, at the Peace of Augsburg (1555), he was forced to concede in law precisely that ius reformandi which he had tried to eliminate militarily. The Peace of Augsburg legalised Lutheranism in the hands of established authority, mainly the princes.
The princely Reformation turned out, not only in Germany, but elsewhere in northern Europe where it served as a model, to be a conservative affair. The Swedish Reformation provides a typical example. Sweden was under the rule of the Danish crown until Gustav Vasa led an independent revolt and established himself as its crowned prince in 1523. Building on that initiative and casting around for resources to reinforce his authority, he dispossessed the Church of its lands, threw out the Danish senior clergy and appointed his own, and instituted a Reformation in the name of Luther in which the Swedish Mass retained altars, crucifixes, candles, vestments, the Virghin Mary and saints’ days. All that changed was the use of the vernacular instead of Latin, the communion in both bread and wine, and the suppression of incense and holy water. There was not much visually to distinguish a Lutheran church from the Catholic Church which had gone before. Such cautious princely Reformations in Northern Europe proved enduring, but the solidity came at a price. They relied on top-down religious structures in which secular forces played a dominant role. Popular participation was squeezed out. They developed a fear of the ‘outsider’ (initially Catholics, but then non-Lutherans as well) as one facet of an obsession with ‘order’, manifested in legislation governing people’s social and moral behaviour.
By contrast, the Reformation’s explosive dynamics lasted longer in the urban landscape. In the Rhineland, in Zurich, and then later in Geneva, there was an alternative model of Reformation, one which was less conservative, and with different relationships with power, and greater degrees of participation. The differences focused initiially on the relationship between words and things, between the spiritual world and the world as it is. It initially manifested itself in radically opposing attitudes to the crucifixes, shrines, paintings, statues and altars which were an essential part of the pre-Reformation sacral landscape. To Luther they were not, in and of themselves, offensive. To turn them into idols was wrong, of course, but it depended on how we looked at them. They should not be removed by force because they were the ‘bible of the poor’ (Biblia pauperum) as a Church Council in the Middle Ages had put it. (*) In Zurich and elsewhere, they had other ideas. Images encouraged idolatry. They endangered a truly Reformed community. They should be removed by force - by the people if the magistrates to carry out their duty. Similar differences of view prevailed over the central issue of the Eucharist, the bread and wine of the Mass or Communion in the Christian rite. Luther continued to believe that, at the consecration in the Mass, they became, by a kind of miracle, the body and blood of Christ. In Zurich, to believe in miracles was to accept the false teaching of the old Church. The bread and wine were just ‘symbols’ (‘pictures’). To believe anything else was simply ‘idolatry’. So in Zurich, the bread and wine were just that; there were no wafers with crosses on them, and no bitter herbs in the wine. Crucifixes, shrines and altars were removed. So too were organs, since music was a form of aural idolatry. (*) That became the norm for Calvinist ‘temples’ (they preferred that term to ‘church’) throughout Europe, even when they took over older buildings. And in 1525, Zwingli committed himself to a ‘symbolic’ view of the Eucharist which placed him on a collision course with Luther. The collision duly happened in a conference in October 1529, presided over by Philip of Hesse (the ‘Colloquy of Marburg’) nd attended by Zwingli, Luther and associated cohorts of theologians. The dispute turned on the Eucharistic ‘words of institution’. Luther theatrically wrote them in chalk on the table at the beginning. ‘This is my Body’ (‘Hoc est corpus meum’). Fierce argument ensured about how these should be interpreted, in a literal or metaphorical sense, and there was no meeting of minds. The result was a fundamental rift, leading to two different lineaments of the Reformation, with mutual conflict between them. Confessionalisation was not simply between Catholic and Protestant, but between different sorts of Protestantism. Catholic polemicists seized on these divisions as proof that the Reformation was the work of the Devil.
Zurich’s Reformation offered a model for a Reformation which was different from that of the princely Lutheran kind. Whilst rejecting Anabaptism and radical alternatives, it held on to the possibility of fundamental change in the church, and in society at large. It wanted to purify the sacral landscape of idolatry. (*) And it wanted to make the church accountable to the local community, especially the magistrates in a consistorial structure. That fitted urban environments, but which worked less well when transferred to larger entities like states (consistorial-synodal organisation, or presbyterian). It preserved some of the initial dynamism of the Reformation into the next generation of the Reformation.
That generation, the years from the 1530s to 1560s, was dominated by the hostile impact to the Lutheran Reformation. In Western Europe, the forces for repression and maintaining orthodoxy were mostly still in place, and could still be effective, especially where they had the support of political authorities. They swung into action to control the printing and distribution of heretical literature and opinions, seen as imported from abroad, and to prosecute the ringleaders. The second generation of the Reformation was therefore marked by a dynamic of reaction, repression, and response, especially in France, the Netherlands, and England. That dynamic involved a sharpening of polemic, a hardening of opinions, show-trials and executions. (*) The latter created ‘martyrs’ for the faith whose constancy in the face of adversity was commemorated in Protestant ‘martyrologies’. The ebb and flow of persecution was dictated by how the threat was perceived, by the sympathy or not of those in power to the Reformation, and by international diplomacy. In England, especially under Mary Tudor, it turned out to be brutally efficient, and might even have worked (if Mary had not died at a crucial moment). In France, repression made a lot of enemies and failed. In the Netherlands, it worked but at the price of sacrificing the credibility of those in power among local elites. The forces of repression gradually coalesced into the Counter-Reformation, a term which obscures, however, how much the Catholic response to religious change in the sixteenth century was responding to similar contradictory tendencies as the Protestant Reformation itself.
Alongside those who tried to cover up their true opinions in superficial conformity to the Catholic Church were those who found themselves part of an underground movement of Protestant sympathizers, who sought support from outsider for their clandestine activities. Those who were unlucky enough to be caught, sought protectors in high places. When that did not work, they went into exile - in the Rhineland (Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Basel) and North Germany (Wesel) and in Switzerland (Geneva, Bern, Lausanne). Those communities of exiles became attracted to what, by the late 1540s, had become a Zwinglian-Calvinist model of Reformation on the basis of an accord which was arrived at between Jean Calvin in Geneva and Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich. The exile churches were the first of ‘Reformed’ Protestantism, what became known as the Calvinist or Genevan Reformation. They were attracted to its commitment to a reformation of church and society, its iconophobia, it respect for local communities taking charge of their churches, and its increased emphasis on the importance of the ‘elect’, the saints (exiles could identified themselves as belonging in that category) those whom God had predestined to be saved. Because they often quarrelled amongst themselves about how far and how fast to go in establishing a godly community, they looked to Geneva and Zurich to sort out their differences. These communities of exiles, in turn, provided the places and personnel for training missionaries to serve the underground churches in France, the Netherlands and England. Their publishers funded and distributed the literature - especially cheap editions of the Psalms in vernacular translations - that marked the advent of Calvinism in later sixteenth century Western Europe.
In Eastern Europe, the pattern of the second generation was rather different. The Reformation was an importation, principally from German lands. It depended on propitious circumstances for its success, particularly on its adaptation to the local linguistic and cultural milieu, on local support, and on the fortuitous outcome of the conflicts that it raised. The guardians of tradition and legitimacy mostly proved rather weak and ineffectul, and there were large parts of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia, the Baltic littoral, parts of Poland and Hungary, where the Catholic churhc was reduced to an ineffectual minority. (*) The largest Protestant Church building in the sixteenth century was actually St Mary’s in Gdansk, a huge brick barn beside which the Polish monarchy was constrained to erect a small Catholic chapel so that it had somewhere to worship when it visited the port. The Polish monarchy was, like most of those in eastern Europe, elective, and it therefore depended for its authority on the local estates, which meant the nobility. Protestantism prospered in eastern Europe where it won over the local nobility. Its success can be measured through the efforts to produce vernacular Protestant Bibles. This was difficult because of the linguistic diversity of these regions, languages with unstable written forms and different alphabets. The commercialization of book production was compromised in the east by the small markets for individual translations and the underdeveloped printing and distribution infrastructures. Production was all the more dependent, therefore, on aristocreatic patronage, the collaboration of clerics and the availability of vernacular translations. In many places, what begun in the second generation of the Reformation, still had not been achieved by the middle of the seventeenth century. By default, Protestantism tended to spread through Germanic culture - German-speaking merchants, miners and educators - but there was a reaction to the influence of Germans in Eastern Europe which limited Protestantism. Slavs, Croats, Slovenes and Poles did not identify with it. If they became interested in the Reformation, it tended to be in its non-Lutheran or dissident forms - Calvinist, Anabaptist, or anti-Trinitarian (Unitarian). Under the influence of the nobility, the Reformation in the east evolved leisurely, moulding itself to established ethnic, political and social contours. It was anaemic, created no martyrs, and lacked a divisive edge. If Eastern Europe proved an apparently easy recruiting ground for the Protestant Reformation in its second generation, it would prove an equally fruitful terrain for the Counter-Reformation in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In the 1560s, the permanent lineaments of the geo-political reality of Protestantism were beginning to emerge. (*) On the one hand, there was a largely Catholic Southern Europe, where the forces of reaction and reconfiguration were successful in excluding Protestantism. Those forces included deep roots in late medieval catholic spirituality which could be reenergised and redeployed in the service of a Papacy and church order which articulated itself as the source of the historic continuity of truth, of divinely proclaimed order, and which could put itself at the head of a global Christianity through the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires. (*) Against that stood a northern Europe which had mostly become solidly Protestant of a rather conservative hue - Lutheran princely Reformations. (*) In the middle, however, lay a broad band of territories where the religious situation was unstable and in contention. Some of them were large and powerful dynastic states like England and France, but which found themselves destabilised in the third and fourth generations of the Reformation, by helter-skelter changes of confessional allegiance (in the case of England) or by civil wars (as in the case of France, from 1562, off and on, through to 1598, and (in a less emphatic register, again in the 1620s) in which religion differences played a major role. The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, however, were smaller states, held together in loose groupings. In the Netherlands, religion became entwined with a revolt from its various provinces’ overlord, the Spanish Habsburgs, which began in 1566 and which continued, with a brief intermission of 11 years in 1609-1621, into the Thirty Years War. In German lands, the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 accorded princes and cities the right to choose the religion of their subjects whilst requiring them to allow people who did not accept their choice the right to move to another country without prejudice. A rather similar arrangement was de facto put into place in the Swiss cantons. So much of Central Europe represented a patchwork of different confessions, which looks as confusing on the map as it was on the ground, and as fundamentally unstable. In eastern Europe, there was all still to play for, since there were significant Protestant minorities everywhere but almost nowhere did Protestantism become a religion of state.
The second half of the sixteenth century is commonly called the time of Europe’s wars of religion. In reality, these were political contentions in which religion was the way by which conflicts in state and church were manifested. The divisions over religious beliefs and practices which the Reformation had unleashed were polymorphic and unpredictable, religion being both a cause and a consequence of them because it was a central dynamic in public and private affairs. Virulent doctrinal and dogmatic conflicts took on new forms, often concentrating on where the ‘true’ church was to be found. Armed conflicts descended into civil wars, iconoclastic uprisings, local civil disorders, noble-led rebellions and peasant revolts. Antagonisms over religious buildings, rights of worship, contested social space, prayers, processions and ceremonies were the outwards manifestations of conflicts which challenged the authority of magistrates and clerics. Managing the potential for divisions on the grounds of religion was complicated. ‘Toleration’ was not what was expected of a Christian magistrate, still less of a convinced minister of God’s holy Word. Luther introduced the term into the German vocabulary, only to dismiss what it implied. ‘Faith suffers nothing, and the Word tolerates nothing’ was one of Luther’s paradoxes, meaning that God’s Word allowed no compromises. A magistrate was no more expected to tolerate the existence of another religion than to permit the existence of demonic forces and withccraft. To tolerate something was to allow an evil to be perpetuated because one did not have the conviction or authority to stamp it out. None of the religious confessions was fundamentally tolerant of the existence of other religions. Magistrates were repeatedly exhorted to use the power of the sword to maintain the authority and status of the Church and its confessions in their dominions to the exclusion of others. Rulers needed little persuasion of the righteousness as well as the right-mindedness of uniting their lands and peoples under one contested faith.
Yet, calling the later sixteenth century the era of the wars of religion underestimates the degree to which religion was a prism through which questions of power and identity were viewed. It excludes the equally significant and contrary experience, also generated by the Protestant Reformation, of religious pluralism. Religious dissent did not necessarily lead to conflict. The differences between groups of Protestants opened up the possibility early on that there were ceremonies and rituals which might not be specifically forbidden or commanded by God (adiaphora: things indifferent), and which therefore were matters over which one could agree to disagree. The problem was that to admit that there were ‘things indifferent’ opened the door to individual choice. Religious conformity seemed to grow in importance as the risks of dissent grew greater. And conformity was hard-wired into post-Reformation society. For most people conformity meant doing what everyone else did in their neighbourhood, which was to attend the local church, which intersected with local civic life. Not to attend church raised a question mark over whether one belonged in the community. To be excluded from receiving communion through excommunication was a mark of shame. To tolerate excommunicates - and, by extension, nonconformists, was to invite God’s wrath. Correspondingly, when catastrophe hit local society, the most readily available explanation was that the community had collectively sinned and must assuage God’s anger. So the pressures for conformity were as much generated within localities as from above. And the sense that people were living in the last age, that the Reformation hah ushered in the ‘last age’ of the world and that God would shortly come in judgment and call the wicked to account and reward the just, was very widespread. It motivated the mass violence which accompanied the early stages of the French wars of religion.
But religious divisions in the later sixteenth century ran through communities, and not simply between states and political entities. Managing the resulting tensions required skillful diplomacy by local elites. In retrospect we can see where and when flashpoints occurred. Processions, feast-days and funerals were moments when public space was occupied exclusively by one religion, and when people were in physical proximity. When incidents occurred, however, they were often localized, limited because people’s commitment to their religious beliefs was trumped by their other commitments not to transgress the law, to behave charitably towards their neighbours and to accept the judgment of their betters. People who were divided by religion retained much of what they shared in common. Europe’s communities had ways of repairing the potential damage caused by the divisions of the Reformation. In a few places such as the Thurgau on the borders of the canton of Zurich, Catholics and Protestants came to a local agreement in 1531 that Protestants and Catholics could practise their ceremonies in private and in public, even sharing church space. Arrangements were put in place for the division of church property in proportion to the numbers in each faith. In German lands, the law of the empire provided a framework for dealing with the conflicts, one which secured peace in the Empire throughout the later sixteenth century, although it gradually came unstuck in the decades before the Thirty Years War. Elsewhere in Europe, where churches were weaker, where they had complex relationship with the state, and where political power was more distributed - as in the emerging provinces of the Dutch Republic, or in Poland for example - the possibilities for local and national agreement generating religious pluralism became greater.
[Another layer of dynamic tensions within the European Reformation was the relationship between churches and states, and the impact of both on the implantation of religious change. The Protestant Reformation fractured the Church into different congregations, each claiming to be the inheritor of the ‘true Church’. That was a recipe for ongoing debates which were sharpened by the belief that salvation depended on belonging to the true Church. That sense of belonging was crystalised for ordinary people in the emerging confessional apparatus of liturgies for church services, catechisms for religious education, confessions, biblical transaltions, ecclesiastical disciplines and programmes of religious education. These all emphasised to ordinary people the emerging divisions in Europe.
Protestantism had a double logic which affected the role of the church. The first was its impact on its material fabric. Wherever it took root, the Protestant Reformation broke established patterns of landed wealth, tithe income (the income demanded by the church as a proportion of productive wealth, notionally a tenth) and spiritual dues (exacted for burying, marrying people, etc). Princes were no longer anxious about being charged with sacrilege in attacking Church wealth. Protestant reformers provided them with the pretext to appropriate it under the guise of attacking abuses in the corrupt old Church. The Protestant Reformation marked a large transfer of wealth and the partial dismantling of the clerical wealth that had no parallel in the Catholic world.
The second logic of the Protestant Reformation recalibrated the relationships between Church and State. Among the emerging Protestant political entities, the affairs of churches - from the appointment of pastors to parochial life - tended to become more a matter on which princes and magistrates expected to have a say, sometimes a determinant one. Most Protestant reformers accepted the notion that the godly ruler had a duty to promote faith, piety and right behaviour among his subjects, thereby tacitly expanding the role of the prince, of the state, in the affairs of the church. That was even more so because the separate jurisdictions of ecclesiastical courts was mainly abolished in Protestant Europe. Church courts had dealt with, among other things, blasphemy, witchcraft and conjuring, and marriager. New laws and tribunals had to be established by magistratesw and enforced in courts that were more civil than exclesiastical. When Calvin (following a lead set in Basel and Strasbourg) tried to define more precisely the authority of the Church throuigh establishing a consistory court in Geneva and vesting in it the power of excommunication, he was criticized by other Protestants, more favourable to secular authority, as wanting to create a ‘new popery’. Thomas Lüber (Erastus), a physician in Heidelberg, gave his name to the notion that civil magistrates,m or rulers, exercised sovereignty in their states, and that Churches possessed no coercive powers. That, in fact, became the norm in Protestant Europe, and with it, came a changed relationship between church and state.
That change was masked by the huge energy which was devoted to establishing a godly, educated, preaching ministry in Protestant Europe. Being a ‘minister’ or ‘pastor’ was different from being a priest. Ministry was a public office, connected to a specific congregation - typically a parish. That office required a special vocation, but not celibacy. That vocation was manifested by what the minister did and, even more importantly, said. The minister’s educational attainments and learning, family life and local standing, preaching abilities and ‘good conversation’ became the signs of his vocation. But these were ideals and inclined to inflate. And since ministry was in a relationship to those being ministered to there were always doubts and dilemmas. Protestant anxiety about uprightness and vocation begun early on. Finding ministers to fit the new demands was not easy. Training them was costly and time-consuming. They often had unrealistic expectations of what they could expect in the behaviour of their congregations whilst their parishioners equally placed impossible and contradictory demands upon them.
As Protestant Churches embedded themselves in society, so ‘discipline’ (the shaping of public behaviour and morality) became part of an unerlying anxiety about order. Protestants abolished confession and penance, but they difficult in identifying the ways by which the Reformation could be instilled in people’s hearts and minds. Luther and his collaborators thought it would happen on its own as part of God’s providence and when it did not materialise, they were disillusioned. So the second, third and fourth generations of the Reformation were dominated by the issue of how to anchor religious beliefs and practices in people’s lives and behaviours, by marriage courts, by consistories to oversee people’s behaviour and call them to account for misdemeanours, and parish visitations. In Reformed (Calvinist) environments discipline became the mark of the true Church, and Calvinism - termed a ‘further reformation’ in some parts of Germany and ‘puritanism’ in England - had its supporters because it seemed to offer a more thorough version of a Reformation which had not succeeded.]
So why did the divisions caused by the Protestant Reformation become permanently embedded in Europe? Why was no negotiated resolution of these difficulties possible? The chaotic dynamics of its beginnings prevented a solution emerging at the only moment when it would have been impossible to arrive at one. Once the Reformation had spread beyond German and Swiss lands, and the processes at its heart had been unleashed, it is very difficult to see how they could be contained. That did not stop some people from trying to bridge the emerging chasm, but they failed. And the Council of the Church that was eventually summoned to Trent in 1545 did not try to do so. But that is a subject for next week’s lecture.