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.
The Reformation would not have achieved such immediate success if it had not been able to harness the powerful feelings of separatism and nationalism. Not only did independent state churches spring up to satisfy princely demands for total sovereignty, but the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the substitution of a vernacular for a Latin ritual in church enormously increased the homogeneity of the national cultures. (It would be interesting to speculate about the consequent superiority in internal coherence of Protestants over Catholic states during the last four hundred years.)
Lastly the Reformation era was one in which an attempt was made to restructure the ideal personality of the West. This is a point to which neither author pays much attention, although Dr. Elton shrewdly observes that what was adumbrated in theory by the Catholic More in the Utopia, was put into practice in Calvinist Geneva and Boston. On both sides of the ideological gap, Jesuit, Jansenist, and Calvinist preachers taught austerity, discipline, and self-control, and shifted the main thrust of moral instruction from issues of property and violence to those of pride and sex. Morality was personalized and internalized, as confidence in the priestly capacity for the remission of sins declined. Guilt and the Devil replaced Atonement and the Virgin.
If these are the main underlying forces behind the Reformation, they still only add up to a sufficient rather than a necessary assemblage of causes. To them must be added the spiritual condition of the Catholic Church and the political configuration of Europe. The trouble with the Church was not, as the Humanists thought, that it was full of abuses which cried out to be cleaned up, but rather that it had lost its sense of spiritual purpose which allowed such abuses to flourish. For several hundred years it had successfully absorbed radical reform movements, up to and including the Franciscans, and so had maintained its spiritual vitality. But from the late fourteenth century it had crushed such movements as heretical—like the Lollards and Hussites—and so in consequence had gone into slow ideological decay. Obsessed with administrative issues of law and finance, it had forgotten its essential purpose.
That the Reformation could begin and spread rapidly in Germany can be explained by the fact that in this politically fragmented area there were princes who were ready to offer protection and support. That it could survive and take root can partly be explained by its popular appeal, but partly also by the fact that important political interests felt themselves threatened by the efforts of the Emperor Charles V to crush it. Dr. Elton is at his best as he deploys the evidence to show how the princes—even the Catholic princes—were afraid, since they thought that the suppression of Protestantism might be the first step towards the suppression of princely liberties. France—Catholic, persecuting France—was afraid that if the Habsburgs crushed the Protestants, they would obtain overwhelming strength and so upset the balance of power in Europe. Even the Pope was afraid, since a militarily triumphant Emperor in Germany might threaten his own consolidation of territorial power in Italy. Because of this opposition, together with the need to repel the Turks, Charles V was never able to crush the Reformation heresy. For the same reasons, the triumphant march of the Counter-Reformation back into northern Europe during the Thirty Years War a hundred years later was blocked by the active intervention on the side of the Protestants of Catholic France, and by the ambivalent attitudes of the Catholic Princes of the Empire. Again and again, the balance of power took precedence over religious solidarity. The blood of national self-interest was thicker than the water of ideology.
IN THE FIRST HALF of the sixteenth century Europe was faced with a variety of religious alternatives. There was the old, unreformed, polytheistic Catholicism of relics, indulgences, and all the rest of the degenerate paraphernalia of salvation at the bargain basement, whose survival was now virtually impossible in view of the rising demand in Europe for spiritual nourishment. There was the possibility of a Catholic Church reformed along the lines of the Christian Humanists; that is, purged of its administrative and financial abuses, made tolerant, humane, and easy-going. The suggestion that had it not been for Luther the Church might have evolved on these lines has been toyed with by one or two historians, for example by Professor Trevor-Roper, and the idea is superficially an attractive one. But, as Dr. Elton points out, it involves a transfer of twentieth-century values to the sixteenth century and ignores the fact that Erasmian Humanism was essentially moralistic and elitist. It neither desired nor was able to satisfy the theological needs of the intellectuals or the spiritual needs of the poor, but it was precisely their needs which were tearing Christendom apart.
A third possibility, whose full significance is only just becoming apparent with the publication of Professor William’s comprehensive survey, was the Radical Reformation, that strange eruption of sectarian faiths which proliferated throughout Europe between 1520 and 1580: they appeared in their dozens, running down the alphabet from Adamites, Amosites, and Anabaptists, to Unitarians, Utraquists, and Valdesians. Most of them were religious fanatics obsessed with millenarian fantasies, and had little sense of worldly reality. But amid their mystical speculations, they came up with such notions and practices as equality between the sexes, the exaltation of sexual activity in marriage, divorce on the grounds of adultery, community of goods and of production to create economic equality; the abolition of class distinctions to create social equality; the abolition of usury, tithes, and taxes, total liberty of conscience and worship; and withdrawal from all offices of any kind in the sinful world of secular authority. These sects were crushed with the extreme ferocity society reserves for those who threaten the values by which it lives. They were massacred swiftly in hot blood, and tortured slowly in cold. They were burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, drowned, beheaded, hanged, flogged, torn with red hot pincers, eviscerated, and dismembered. By the end of the sixteenth century this massive and remorseless cruelty had done its work, and the Radical sects had been reduced to tiny fringe groups eking out a precarious and secret existence.
NEITHER DR. ELTON nor Professor Dickens have much time or sympathy for the radicals, though both admit that they included men of gentle and saintly disposition. Dr. Elton even goes so far as to blame the extreme cruelty of Calvinists and Lutherans on the provocation offered by their victims, as if the authoritarian and repressive tendencies in official Protestantism were not explicit from the start. Neither is prepared to admit that the ideas of the Radicals have any significance for the future, but this is a judgment which needs reexamination in the light of Professor William’s book.
And so the unreformed late medieval church was incapable of defending itself, the Christian Humanist Erasmians never had a chance, and the Radical sects were persecuted almost to extinction. The spiritual needs of Europe were met first by the Magisterial Reformation, as Professor Williams calls it, and later by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Of the three main branches of the Magisterial Reformation, two, the Lutheran and Anglican, almost immediately adapted to the existing political authority and lost all capacity for expansion; they became local, particularist, and conservative. Calvinism, however, was made of sterner stuff, for it had all the ingredients for dynamic growth. It had a sacred book, the Bible, the militant Old Testament being more often read than the pacific Gospels; it had a cellular organization and rigid discipline; and it had a mystical faith in the future triumph of the cause. The doctrine of Predestination of the Elect, by its very determinism, screwed men up to ever greater feats of activity, just as the similarly deterministic faith of Marxism does today.
Opposed to this expansionist religion was a revitalized Catholic Church, a new element omitted from Professor Dickens’s otherwise comprehensive sweep, but excellently handled by Dr. Elton, Faced with siege conditions, Rome reacted in a predictable way: It became more centralized, more dogmatic, more rigid, more persecuting, and more fanatical; it also became more spiritually and intellectually alive, more fertile in institutional innovation, more active in the battle for souls than it had been for centuries. The combination of the administrative centralization of the Papacy, the repressive activities of the Inquisition, the educational drive of the Jesuits, the spiritual and aesthetic regeneration of baroque Catholicism, and the military conquests of the Habsburg armies succeeded in the seventeenth century in rolling the tide of heresy back into Northern Germany, and in recovering the whole of Eastern Europe.
In the face of these antagonistic forces, sensible politicians did what they could to avoid disaster by settling for a division of Europe on geographical lines. The Cuius regio eius religio formula of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 was a cynical but practical device to prevent the total destruction of Europe in ideological conflict. In practice, if not in theory, it gave secular powers the freedom to exterminate dissenters within their own borders without running much risk of external intervention. Within a generation ideology had consequently ceased to be analyzable in terms of class or group feelings, and had become a mere matter of geography. Europe was fragmented, areas like the Netherlands were artificially split in two, but peace was preserved in Germany for seventy years. There are lessons here for the twentieth century.
IF WE TURN from the causes to the consequences of this gigantic upheaval in the life of Europe, we are at once faced with a grave semantic difficulty. Many forces, like literacy, nationalism, or anticlericalism, are both a cause and a consequence: Their presence helped the Reformation to take root, but the Reformation in its turn enormously stimulated their subsequent growth. In the short run the results are clear enough. There was a gigantic increase in man’s inhumanity to man, in violence and cruelty; there was a sharp decline in freedom of thought, in rational ideas of toleration and moderation, as the Humanists were displaced by the extremists; there was much redistribution of property from the clergy to the laity in both Catholic and Protestant areas; and lastly there was a striking rise in religious enthusiasm penetrating all classes in the social structure: Europe was Christianized at last.
The long-term consequences, however, were both unintended and quite different. In politics, the statement between Protestants and Catholics confirmed the particularist fragmentation of Germany by the stimulus given to the Princes; and confirmed the national fragmentation of Europe by the stimulus given to state churches. The challenge of the Radicals forced the Lutherans further into an alliance with the lay authorities than they would otherwise have wished to go; and the challenge of Protestantism forced Rome to adopt a rigid and reactionary posture of centralized authoritarianism from which it is only emerging today, some four hundred years later.
One of the great organizing hypotheses of modern times was advanced by Max Weber, who argued that the teachings of the Reformers created the necessary ethical conditions without which modern capitalism could not flourish. The hypothesis was reinterpreted by R. H. Tawney, who argued that the ideas of the Reformers were adjusted over time in order to fit the needs of the capitalist, bourgeois society in which they had to take root. Neither Professor Dickens nor Dr. Elton think much of these propositions, and the latter, relying heavily on the work of a Swedish historian, Dr. Samuelsson, launches into a ferocious onslaught on the whole idea, pouring particular scorn on Tawney’s great book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. He writes:
His book has had an extraordinary influence. Especially in England and America, it has greatly assisted in the decline of Protestant self-confidence and the consequent revival of Roman Catholicism, in the reaction against capitalism as an economic system, and even perhaps in the West’s increasing inclination to relinquish world leadership.
The most charitable thing one can say about this extraordinary outburst is that the explanation it offers for the Decline of the West at least has the virtue of novelty. (One of the more puzzling phenomena of our time is the way conservative intellectuals, like Dr. Elton or Professor Trevor-Roper, who are capable of taking a cool and dispassionate view of Karl Marx, are driven to frenzies of hatred by the writings of that mild Christian socialist, R. H. Tawney.)
THE CRITICISMS of Weber and Tawney formulated by Dr. Samuelsson and repeated by Dr. Elton are based, as Professor Edmund Morgan of Yale has shown, on a failure to understand what they were talking about, or indeed to read them with care. Weber was not concerned with human greed and acquisitiveness, which he realized perfectly well to be a persistent psychological trait, nor with the emergence of “booty capitalists” battening on government, finance, monopolies, war, piracy, or usury. So to trot out the Fuggers, or Calvin’s hostility to usury, is entirely beside the point.
Weber and Tawney identify a “Protestant ethic” of self-control, austerity, thrift, and diligence in one’s calling, all of which are indications (to oneself) that one may in fact be among the Elect. This unremitting care and watchfulness were contrasted with the more humane sin-and-remission cycle of the Roman Catholic Church, and, when widely dispersed among a whole population, must inevitably lead, thought Weber, to that routine application to business which is the essence of modern capitalism—“the rational capitalist organization of (formally) free labor.” If one is to criticize this thesis, it must at least be in terms of what it says. Now it is certainly true that “middle class morality” towards sex and work and punctuality has been a prime characteristic of the industrial societies of the West, and that this morality seems to derive its origin from Calvinist theology. The fact that by the eighteenth century it had become divorced from its religious foundation and had become the purely secular value system of Benjamin Franklin merely proves that it had taken sufficient root to survive the waning of religious enthusiasm. Far more disturbing for the thesis are facts which both Dr. Elton and Professor Dickens ignore. The dilemma of the pious Calvinist merchant seeking both to conform to the Calvinist ethic code about the just price and to pursue his calling to the best of his endeavor, is revealingly portrayed in the agonized autobiography of the seventeenth-century Boston merchant, Robert Keayne* . The Puritan ethic drove him to maximize his profits, but the economic morality of his church condemned him publicly when he did it. In the end, as we know, the growth of capitalism eroded the moral restraints, even in Boston, but this psychic tension, this precarious balance, is something overlooked by Weber and denied by Tawney. Secondly, we are beginning to be aware of the existence of a “Catholic Puritanism,” particularly marked in French Jansenism, ‘which throws doubt on the unique role of Protestantism in developing these ethical characteristics.
THE OTHER GREAT ISSUE that is hotly disputed today but is largely ignored by both authors, is the contribution of Protestantism to the rise of science. Here again the evidence is ambiguous. Early sixteenth-century science flourished more in Catholic areas like Italy than in Protestant countries, and it was not till the Papacy decided on a policy of repression in the seventeenth century that there was a marked shift to the non-Catholic world, which has by and large persisted ever since. The most plausible reason for an association of science with Protestantism is that the latter’s rejection of the host of intercessors in the processes of nature, of saints and angels and miracle-working relics, cleared the way for an objective study of second causes, and so for the remote, Newtonian, watchmaker God.
Although it is likely that neither author would agree with me, I believe that the most important contribution of the Reformation to capitalism, science, and the spirit of toleration was not intended at all. The religious fragmentation of Christian Europe undermined confidence in the existence of a single road to truth. The red-hot enthusiasm of the seventeenth century led directly to the cool Deism of the eighteenth. The appalling bloodshed and destruction of the religious wars finally stimulated recognition of the economic and political advantages of toleration. The failure of persecution to extirpate other creeds in many Protestant areas forced several countries, and in particular England, to accept, willy-nilly, a plural society where many beliefs and opinions could flourish. Once this happened, some of the discredited ideas of the Radical Reformers about liberty, equality, and fraternity could once more emerge into the open and even achieve, here and there, some measure of respectability. The shift of authority from clergy to laity led in the end to a shift of values from the next world to this, as the book production and the library holdings of the late seventeenth century plainly show. In the last resort, therefore, the Reformation, like all other great movements in history, had consequences quite other than those which were intended by its leaders and their followers.
The Apologia of Robert Keayne, ed. B. Bailyn, Harper Torchbooks, 1965↩
Is It Fair to Weber? January 26, 1967
The Apologia of Robert Keayne, ed. B. Bailyn, Harper Torchbooks, 1965↩