Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe
Reformation Europe, 1517-1559
One of the more striking features of Christianity has been its perennial tendency to fission. With difficulty held together throughout the Middle Ages, it suddenly split asunder in the early sixteenth century. Not only were a number of new and independent churches thrown up by the earthquake—Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anglican—but through the cracks in the fabric of medieval society there oozed a host of strange new sects with alarmingly revolutionary beliefs and aspirations. The story of this great convulsion has often been told, but never better than in the two books under review. Although the tone and the interpretation differ in many respects, both are fine examples of synthesis and compression and are models of what a good textbook should be.
Professor Dickens is the more subtle and philosophic, and he treats his theme in a broader perspective. He lays principal stress on popular undercurrents of religious emotion and faith, and sees the Reformation as a series of responses by men in authority and by institutions to pressures and demands from below. His strength lies in his sympathy for and understanding of the ideological tensions and conflicts which were at work in late medieval Europe, and his appreciation of the deep undercurrents of history which were sweeping along even the most powerful princes, like Charles V, and the most charismatic prophets, like Luther. As he rightly comments, this gigantic upheaval in the values of Western Civilization “should not be made narrowly to revolve around a few great figures.” Like others in the series, his book is very lavishly illustrated, with nearly 150 little pictures, excellently reproduced, both in color and in black and white. The purpose of grafting this wealth of visual material on to the text is not entirely clear. Portraits of the leading reformers, panoramas of contemporary Zurich, Geneva, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, scenes of religious atrocities and executions, of mercenaries at play and a printing shop at work, all add something to the reader’s sense of immediacy, his awareness of the physical appearance of sixteenth-century Europe. But one may reasonably question whether this spatter of tiny pictures on almost every page, rather than a few well-selected, large-scale illustrations, is the right way to use the opportunities opened up by cheap reproduction techniques in both black-and-white and color: blasting away in the general direction of the target with a sten gun is no substitute for accurate marksmanship. In this case the illustrations tend to get between the reader and a brilliant piece of writing.
DR. ELTON’S GREAT MERIT is clarity. He says what he thinks, and says it in a way which is immediately understandable. You may disagree with him, but you never fail to get what he is driving at, as is sometimes the case with more sophisticated minds. He writes with verve and energy, and his book is a triumph of well-organized compression. As befits an administrative historian, he tells a detailed narrative story, and places his main emphasis on the outstanding personalities and their use of power, particularly the power of the sword. There is a good deal of sense in this approach, for again and again we see a determined minority imposing its doctrinal views on an indifferent or reluctant majority by the use of force. The first half-century of Calvinist rule in the Netherlands, and of Anglican rule in England, are striking examples. On the other hand, Dr. Elton exaggerates the degree to which state power was effective in the sixteenth century, and underestimates the role of popular feeling, as in his treatment of the Reformation in England. Together with the comprehensive study by G. H. Williams of Harvard, of The Radical Reformation (Westminster 1962), which appeared too late to be fully used by either author, these two volumes make possible a reassessment of the Reformation in the light of the best modern scholarship. When analyzing the causes of the Reformation, both authors begin, perhaps a little half-heartedly, with a description of the social scene in early sixteenth-century Germany. One theory, which goes back at least to Henri Hauser half a century ago, is that the area was a victim of violent economic and social dislocation. The result of rapid population growth was rising food prices, drift to the towns, unemployment, fragmented rural holdings, high rents and low wages, and a widening gulf between rich and poor. Artisans and peasants were particularly affected by the low wage-high price system, were further squeezed by rising taxation to feed the developing state machines of Europe and by landlord exploitation of a surplus of labor. The result, so the theory runs, was poverty, disorientation, and resentment, which early found expression in millenarian religious revival and also in receptiveness to the more disciplined and rational appeals of Luther or Calvin.
As Professor Dickens points out, the difficulty about this theory is that there is very little evidence that population pressures had become really serious by 1520; very little evidence that the plight of peasants and artisans was much worse than it was later on; no evidence at all that such misery as existed was particularly severe in Germany. In Luther’s day this was the most prosperous area in Europe, and the crushing of peasants and artisans by the weight of taxation and high rents had hardly begun. In the towns, the economic and political deprivation of the artisan class was only just beginning, and was to get much worse later.
The second hypothesis, which was first put forward by Engels and Marx, is that the Reformation is related to the rise of the bourgeoisie. But in the first place, it has been argued by Professors Hexter and Trevor-Roper that it is not at all clear that the bourgeoisie was rising at this time. The growing commercial activity of Europe was probably increasing the wealth and the numbers of the merchant community, and the numbers, if not the wealth, of the artisans. But it is very doubtful indeed whether this increase was as great as the growth of aristocratic and princely wealth which was to result from the seizure of church property, the rise in rents, and the increase in state revenues from taxes. In terms of power, moreover, the town authorities were everywhere losing their sovereignty in the face of encroachments from princes and nobles. Secondly not all bourgeois were Protestant. It is true that the early reformers—Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli—made an immediate appeal to influential groups in the free cities of central Europe, especially, it seems, to the younger generation in the new trades who were anxious to seize power from the older, more conservative patriciate. On the other hand, the patricians of the greatest European cities, Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, and London, seem to have been either hostile or indifferent, while some of the most fanatically Protestant areas, like Scotland, had virtually no bourgeoisie at all. All that can reasonably be said at this stage is that when the dust settled in the late sixteenth century, it appeared that the growth points in the European economy—the cities of the western sea-board—were predominantly Protestant, while the stagnating cities of the central land-mass were largely Catholic once more. But whether anything can be made of this association is at present very doubtful.
PROFESSOR DICKENS lays particular stress on a third, perhaps more plausible, sociological explanation of the Reformation, which is that it reflects the rise of an educated elite of laymen, ready and anxious to take over the spiritual and administrative functions of a now superfluous and discredited clergy. In broad terms, this is indeed what happened, and the growing control of the laity over the clergy is a phenomenon common to all stages of the Reformation. Perhaps the most important theological change was the reduction in the role of salvation played by the sacrament. This in turn involved a sharp reduction in the authority and prestige of the clergy as the controllers of this ritual; and a consequent increase in the independence and self-confidence of the laity. Anti-clericalism has long been recognized as one of the principal forces behind the Reformation, but only recently has it been appreciated that this feeling is the product less of a change for the worse in the character of the priesthood than a change for the better in the demands of the laity. This sense of the superiority of the laity over the clergy was greatly strengthened by the work of the Humanists. Their educational reforms adapted the medieval grammar school and university to the needs of amateur gentlemen rather than of professional clerics, their study of antiquity demonstrated the moral worth even of a non-Christian laity, and the translations of the New Testament destroyed the historical foundation of priestly authority. This new mood of aggressive Erastianism was soon reflected in a shift of political power. Princes took on the congenial role of Priest-Kings, uniting in one person the headship of church and state. Nobles seized church property and the power to appoint the local clergy; city corporations, as at Zurich or Geneva, were associated with the clergy in a tight control of economics and morals. In any case, one of the key aspects of the Reformation was the destruction of the hierarchy of intercessors between God and the individual. Christianity ceased to be a tolerant polytheism with prayers directed to saints and angels and the Virgin Mary rather than to Christ; the role of the sacrament and therefore of its agent the priest, were minimized, and salvation was shifted to the individual act of faith rather than the routine performance of certain rituals.
To sum up then, both authors are in general agreement that the Reformation appealed to certain specific groups within sixteenth-century society. To princes, who found Lutheranism an ideal tool for state-building; to the more progressive urban oligarchs, who found the moralizing energy of Zwingli or Calvin a convenient instrument for the social control of their cities; to artisans and merchants in the newer trades who sought ideological support against an entrenched patriciate: to nobles seeking moral and religious justification for the transfer of church property to themselves and for taking over the administrative and ideological function of the clergy; to aristocratic wives, tormented by the futility of their idle and neglected lives, for whom the new doctrines at last seemed to offer some explanation for their existence; and lastly to the intellectuals, often minor clergy, monks, friars, or academics, who had lost all confidence in their role in the Catholic church and saw in the Reformed religion a more inspiring approach to the problem of salvation, and a faith with which they could make over the corrupt and worldly society in which they lived.
THE MAIN DISTINGUISHING DOCTRINES of the Reformation were salvation by Faith alone and the priesthood of all believers, both of which had as a result the down-grading of the priesthood and the creation of a new hierarchy and a new elite. The key factor in the dissemination of these ideas was the printing press, without which it is probable that there would have been no Reformation at all. The development of moveable type some centuries before the development of an efficient police force gravely weakened the power of the state to control ideas within its own borders (once police powers increased, of course, the balance shifted back again, and today there is overwhelming ideological power in the hands of the state). It was the printing press which disseminated at such speed the ideas of Luther, and the printing press which made that revolutionary document, the Bible, available to an unsophisticated but semi-literate laity. The result was the most massive missionary drive in history, a combined assault on indifference, cynicism, paganism, and ignorance conducted by the Reformers on the one hand and the Counter-Reformers on the other. So far as it conveyed to the ordinary man and woman the true meaning of Christianity, the sixteenth century was far more effective than all the long centuries of the Middle Ages and it is no wild paradox to speak of the sixteenth century as the era of the Rise of Christian Europe—and of the Decline of the Bourgeoisie.