Archive for April, 2012

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—The Terrible Transition toward the Modern Worldview (1500 to 1700)

[This is the seventh installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In my previous post, I described how the expansion of the Ottoman Turks and the discovery of the New World shifted the center of political and economic gravity from Italy and the Mediterranean Sea to north of the Alps—the resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V—and to the Atlantic coastal countries—Portugal, Spain, France, England and Holland extended their competition to the New World through trade and colonization.

Charles V of the Habsburgs inherited the Spanish throne in 1516 and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, thereby creating the largest political entity in Europe since the Roman Empire.  He united the German principalities and the Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian kingdoms with Spain and its control of the Low Countries (now the Netherlands and Belgium) and parts of Italy as well as Spain’s New World colonies.  He ruled this vast collection of semi-autonomous states and dependencies until he resigned in 1556 in favor of his brother Ferdinand I as Holy Roman Emperor and his son Philip II as King of Spain.  Like his predecessors in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabela, Charles V was devoted to Roman Catholicism.  In fact, he regarded himself as the Church’s leader and protector in temporal matters, partner to the Pope as Vicar of Christ in an alliance of the separate realms of the temporal and the spiritual.  He embraced the crusading zeal for defense of Christendom along with imperial ambition to exploit the New World in service of imperial and Church objectives.  He also presided uneasily over the launch of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the first Wars of Religion.

Lutheran Reformation

Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation, starting in 1517 by circulating his “Ninety-Five Theses” objecting to the selling of indulgences by the Church (interpreted as offering tickets to personal salvation in order to raise revenue for the Church’s worldly projects).   He quickly gained a wide readership thanks to printing and the resonance his argument found with so many people disgusted by obvious Church corruption.  By itself this document was not considered heretical by the Church.  But the selling of indulgences symbolized so many other, more fundamental features of Roman Catholic belief and practice that Luther and his followers objected to, and Luther spelled out the details of these strong objections in three books published in 1520.  These could not be ignored.  Luther was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520 and a call for his arrest was put out by Charles V in 1521.  But the politics of the Holy Roman Empire were complicated; princes and their equivalent in the various states had wide latitude to subvert the will of the Emperor and often had scores to settle with him and his allies.  Luther might very well have been executed for heresy (not by the Church but by imperial authorities), like Jan Hus a century earlier, except that he was protected by Frederick of Saxony, who installed Luther at Wartburg Castle, where Luther churned out volumes of new challenges to the Old Religion as well as a German translation of the Bible that helped establish the modern German language.

From Wikipedia, I offer this short summary of Martin Luther’s religious views.  He taught that salvation is not earned by good deeds but is received only as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer from sin.  Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the Pope, claiming that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge.  He also denied the legitimacy and authority of a closed caste of priests to mediate for us with God.  For Luther, all baptized Christians are a holy priesthood, able to interact directly with God.  These became the basic tenets of the Lutherans.

Luther’s revolt was religious not social in nature, yet his writing encouraged many of the German peasantry to rise up in a social revolt against the landlords of some states of the empire.  Luther was appalled by the evil actions of the peasants against their masters and called for their brutal suppression.  It was not for humans to change society, the product of God’s plan for the world.  This view was hardly original to Luther.  It was the general assumption on which social, economic and political organization rested.  It was a human’s task to discern God’s will through the evidence in Nature and Scripture.  Luther did not desire an overturning of the social order; he differed with the Roman Church on questions of whose interpretation of God’s will should be taken seriously.  Yet the social implications of Luther’s religious revolt were profound.  Many nobles and peasants alike harbored deep, simmering resentments against political, social and economic domination by remote authorities aligned with the Roman “confession.”  They wanted greater autonomy and more local authority to organize their lives, communities and states.  Luther gave them religious vocabulary and cogent arguments to support their taking action.  The Lutheran revolt spread rapidly.

English Reformation

At the same time as the rapid spread of Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire, King Henry VIII of England repudiated the authority of the Pope and in 1534 declared himself supreme head of the Church of England.  While it is well known that Henry wanted a divorce that the Pope would not grant, his move to separate from Rome played very well with the nobles who wanted to acquire land owned in perpetuity by numerous monastic houses, which Henry simply dissolved so that he could expropriate and sell the land.  Thus, this was a royal reformation that had very little to do with theology; Henry insisted that the Church of England maintain most of the features of Roman Catholicism.  However, his son Edward, who reigned 1547-53, brought the English church more into line with continental Reformation theology, including the publication of the Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Uniformity which abandoned the Catholic mass and allowed clerical marriage.  Edward was followed by Mary the Catholic and her bloody attempt to restore England’s allegiance to Rome and then Elizabeth I, a pragmatist who enforced an uneasy peace in which the Church of England regained some but not all of its Protestant features and Catholics were allowed to practice their faith in private—at least until she was declared a heretic by the Pope, plots against her were attributed to Catholics, and Philip II of Spain attempted unsuccessfully to invade England with his Spanish Armada in 1588.

Reaction in the German Lands

Whole states of the (especially northern) German lands of the Holy Roman Empire became Lutheran and formed the Schmalkaldic League to resist with military force the action by Charles V to bring them back under the banner of Roman Catholicism.  Charles V was forced by military stalemate to recognize in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that Lutheranism could not be uprooted and therefore would have to be accommodated within the German lands.  The resolution of this war in the name of religion was that each prince would determine the religion that all citizens of his state would have to embrace (allowing those who could not do so to move their families and possessions unimpeded to a state that had embraced their preferred religion—a remarkable concession for the time).  The notion that all citizens of a state should share the same religion startles our modern sensibilities, but we must understand that since antiquity the fundamental concept of communal harmony, from villages to empires, was that its members share the same values, which meant the same religion, at least in public if not uniformly in private.  The fact that the Holy Roman Empire could tolerate both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as official religions coexisting in neighboring states of the empire was quite revolutionary.  It also broke forever the historic unity of Christendom, a common, continental set of values, language and culture that recognized one source of Authority regarding what is true, right and good, the glue that united Europeans despite their often violent commercial and political competition.


At first it seemed that Roman Catholicism was doomed to decline in the face of the vigorous revolt of the Protestant Reformation.  But urged on by Charles V, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent at which Church leaders carefully considered the objections raised by Luther and other Protestants.  Other than making some important reforms to stamp out corruption in the Church hierarchy, the Council finally and fatefully decided to stand its ground, thereby launching the Counter-Reformation.  I quote Professor Bartlett:

In the years of its deliberation, 1545-1563, the Council of Trent redefined and reinforced Catholic doctrine and hierarchy, largely rejecting Protestant demands.  The Latin Vulgate Bible was affirmed as the true source of scripture.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century scholastic theologian, was adopted as the central thinker for the shaping of Catholic dogma.  The central authority of the pope was maintained, the seven sacraments were upheld, and the saints were still recognized.  The centrally managed Roman Inquisition was sustained to identify heresy; and in 1559, the Index of Prohibited Books was decreed to control heretical ideas.

The driving concern that spawned the Inquisition and the Index was the Church’s felt need to provide guidance for the confused laity who sought answers regarding what to believe and what not to believe.  As I described in a prior posting, the Church felt keenly its obligation to prevent its followers from being led astray from the will of God, as interpreted by the Pope and the hierarchy in Rome.  The same zeal for defense of the faith had led in 1540 to the founding of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) by Ignatius of Loyola and a small band of associates.  Like the Dominicans starting in the 1100s, the Jesuits’ reason for being was to engage opponents of the faith in reasoned argument based on the best knowledge of the day, and to win the argument convincingly but peacefully and with respect.  But also like the Dominicans in earlier centuries, the Jesuits often unwittingly (or not) provided intellectual cover for violent suppression of the enemies of the faith.  Again quoting Professor Bartlett:

[The Jesuits] provided the instrument by which that faith would be affirmed, taught and spread.  These priests were to live among the people, engaging in teaching, preaching and missionary activity.  The natives of the new world were to be converted to Roman Christianity and souls both protected and won back from the Protestants in Europe.

The spirit that brought about the Jesuits also brought about the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Jesuits and their superb schools, together with the Inquisition and the Index, represented a different kind of religious war: a war of the spirit and of will between Protestants and Catholics.  Europe had been divided by religion, and the ultimate consequence of this was a century of unspeakable suffering.

Let us remember, however, that the consequent wars were fought in the name of religion but actually in service of temporal politics.  Religious vocabulary and concepts were still regarded as the sole means of justifying human action, even to achieve distinctly secular ends.


By breaking the unity of recognized spiritual and moral Authority, Lutheranism opened the door for a wide variety of independent religious reform movements, often in protest against both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.  The most influential of these was started in 1536 by John Calvin as he turned Geneva into a theocracy in which all behavior and even thought was to be controlled by the city leadership, who thus became the ultimate authority representing God’s will.  Despite the totalitarian austerity imposed by Calvin in Geneva, his simple, clear message was welcomed by Europeans deeply confused by the Reformation.  This new religion spread quickly to France, the Low Countries (Holland) and Scotland thanks to Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion as a guide for setting up independent Calvinist cells, as well as thanks to the printing presses and the University of Geneva that provided the intellectual support for Calvinist missionary work throughout Europe.  Just as Germany was fairly evenly split between Lutheran and Catholic, France became split roughly half and half between Catholics and Calvinists (Huguenots), leading to a French civil war in the name of religion that finally ended in 1598 when King Henri IV achieved religious reconciliation and provided toleration and full civil rights to Huguenots in his brilliant Edict of Nantes (only to be revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, leading to mass emigration of Huguenots to the New World, South Africa and other parts of Europe).

Thirty Years’ War

In the Low Countries, the Catholic King Philip II of Spain (also monarch of the Low Countries) sought to suppress Calvinism through military force, thereby sparking the Dutch Revolt, which started around 1568.  This revolt festered into the 1600s and became part of a continent-wide conflagration—the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-48, which ended with the near total destruction of Europe and the Treaty of Westphalia.  The Thirty Years’ War started with an intensely overzealous effort to impose Catholicism on Bohemia, the home of the earliest proto-Protestant movement, the Hussites.  It soon engulfed the German and Austrian lands of the Holy Roman Empire and then drew in the Lutheran kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, and then Catholic France (but on the side of the Protestants, because of fears of the encirclement by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and Spain!).  All the while, Spain was financing the war in Germany and engaging the Dutch rebels, and the English were fighting their own civil war (as well as wars in Scotland and Ireland)—all in the name of opposing religious identities.  The brutality on all sides, characteristic of civil wars, was as Professor Bartlett wrote “unspeakable.”  In central Europe, which suffered the most, the combatants literally soldiered on despite the eventual bankruptcy of their respective sponsors, causing the armies to live off the land, which means taking what they wanted from the populous and killing those who objected too strenuously.  Europe’s economy collapsed.  Millions were killed or starved to death.  A census of Bohemia after the war found that several thousand villages had been abandoned!  Europe had never seen such widespread and profound devastation.

Old Social Mold Irrevocably Smashed

In its exhaustion, Europe understood that a new political and social arrangement had to be found.  The will to change society could no longer belong solely to God (or God’s interpreters).  Human leaders would have to take matters into their own hands and use reason and experience to the best of their ability.  Much as the Protestants and Catholics now hated each other, they had to tolerate each other’s existence, even in the same states.  Individuals had to be allowed to follow their own consciences in their choice of religious affiliation.  It would no longer be legitimate to use minor theological differences as an excuse to hate those whom we are predisposed to hate anyway for reasons of ethnicity, culture or class.  The passions generated were just too fearsome, the costs far too great.  No longer could sovereignty of states be subsumed to transnational religious confessions.  What was best for the nation or local community had to take precedence over religious affiliation.  In fact, the concept of the secular sovereign nation state led by a sovereign leader started to emerge in theory (Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes in 1651) and in practice (Louis XIII of France under the guidance of the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu, who put the interests of France above those of his Roman Catholic Church).  Not that these changes were fully realized immediately after the Thirty Years’ War or even in the next few centuries, but the old social mold had been irrevocably smashed.  The process of putting together a new order merely advanced a step or two forward in the unprecedented international congress of nations and states involved in the war, convened in two German cities of Westphalia.

After the Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War, “He who comes in the name of the Lord” would be subject to sharp questions and deep suspicion.  By what authority does he represent the Lord?  Whose notion of the Lord does he represent?  And coming in the Lord’s name might mean good or evil intentions depending on our difference or similarity of ethnic, class or political affiliation.  The notion of ultimate Authority had been irrevocably shattered into many, competing authorities, leaving Europeans confused and at odds.  A few started to wonder out loud whether the Lord even exists.  Perhaps we have nothing but our human values to guide us; perhaps we can look only to ourselves or our community or national leaders for guidance regarding what is true, right and good.  In the 1600s and 1700s, the Enlightenment, fueled by the Scientific Revolution, would provide intellectual voice to those looking for a new notion of authority to guide them.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!