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Who or what is a Catholic? This Greek word has become one of the chief battlegrounds in western Latin Christianity, for it is used in different ways that outside observers of Christian foibles find thoroughly confusing. The word ‘Catholic’ is the linguistic equivalent of a Russian doll. It may describe the whole Christian Church founded two thousand years ago in Palestine, or the western half of the Church that split from mainstream eastern Christianity a thousand years ago, or that part of the western half that remained loyal to the bishop of Rome (the pope) after the sixteenth century, or a Protestant European Christian who thought that the bishop of Rome was the Antichrist, or a modern Anglo-Catholic faction within the Anglican Communion. How can the word describe all of these things and still have any meaning? I have written this book about the sixteenth-century Reformation in part to answer that question. The Reformation introduced many more complications to the word; in fact, there were very many different Reformations, nearly all of which would have said that they were aimed simply at recreating authentic Catholic Christianity. For simplicity’s sake I will take for granted that this book examines multiple Reformations, some of which were directed by the pope. From now on I will continue to use the shorthand term “Reformation,” but readers should note that this is often intended to embrace both Protestantism and the religious movements commonly known as Tridentine Catholicism, the Catholic Reformation, or the Counter-Reformation, which revitalized part of the old Church that remained loyal to the pope.
“Catholic” is clearly a word a lot of people want to possess. By contrast, it is remarkable how many religious labels started life as a sneer. The Reformation was full of angry words: “Calvinist” was at first a term of abuse to describe those who believed more or less what John Calvin believed; the nickname gradually forced out the rival contemptuous term “Picard,” which referred to Calvin’s birthplace in Noyon, in Picardy. No Anabaptists ever described themselves as Anabaptist, since “Anabaptist” means “rebaptizer,” and these radical folk believed that their adult baptism was the only authentic Christian initiation, with infant baptism signifying nothing. Even that slippery term Anglican appears to have been first spoken with disapproval by King James VI of Scotland, when in 1598 he was trying to convince the Church of Scotland how unenthusiastic he was for the Church of England.
One of the most curious usages is the growth of the word “Protestant.” It originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programs of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: To keep their solidarity, they issued a protestatio, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label “Protestant” thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that. ‘When the coronation of little King Edward VI was being organized in London in 1547, the planners putting in order the procession of dignitaries through the city appointed a place for “the Protestants,” by whom they meant the diplomatic representatives of these reforming Germans who were staying in the capital. Only rather later did the word gain a broader reference. It is therefore problematic to use Protestant as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, “evangelical.” That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.
Reformation disputes were passionate about words because words were myriad refractions of a God whose names included Word: a God encountered in a library of books, itself simply called the Book—the Bible. It is impossible to understand modem Europe without understanding these sixteenth-century upheavals in Latin Christianity. They represented the greatest fault line to appear in Christian culture since the Latin and Greek halves of the Roman Empire went their separate ways a thousand years before; they produced a house divided. The fault line is the business of this book. It is not a study of the whole of Europe as a whole: It largely neglects Orthodox Europe, the half or more of the continent that stretches from Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine through the lands of Russia as far east as the Urals. I will not deal with these except when the Orthodox story touches on or is intertwined with that of the Latin West. There is a simple reason for this: So far, the Orthodox churches have not experienced a Reformation. Back in the eighth and ninth centuries many of them were convulsed by an “iconoclastic controversy,” which hinged on one of the great issues to reappear in the sixteenth-century Reformation. But in the case of the Orthodox, the status quo was restored and not partially overthrown as it was in the West. We will return to this issue of images frequently in the course of this book.
My subject, then, is the Church which, when united, might most accurately be described (though clumsily and in narrow technical ecclesiological jargon) as the Western Church of the Latin Rite; I shall more commonly call it the western Church or the Latin Church, and refer to the culture that it sustained as Latin or western Christendom. Latin was inherited from the western Roman Empire formally dismantled in 476; Latin remained the language which united the peoples of this society, and in which they made their official approaches to God. During the sixteenth century this western society, previously unified by the pope’s symbolic leadership and by possession of that common Latin culture, was torn apart by deep disagreements about how human beings should exercise the power of God in the world, arguments even about what it was to be human. It was a process of extreme physical and mental violence. The historian of the German Reformation Peter Matheson compares the effect to the strategy of Berthold Brecht in his plays: Brecht talked of “alienation,” Verfremdung, a process of making the familiar unfamiliar in order to shock his theater audiences into taking control of their perceptions of what was going on in the drama. The reformers, suddenly finding the pope to be the devil’s agent and the miracle of the Mass the most evil moment in their earthly experience, would have known exactly what Brecht was trying to say.
The resulting division between Catholic and Protestant still marks Europe west of the lands of Orthodox (Greek, Russian, and oriental) Christianity, in a host of attitudes, assumptions, and habits of life which distinguish, for in stance, the remaining territories of Protestant Prussia from neighboring Catholic Poland, or the Protestant Netherlands from the Catholicism of the modern kingdom of Belgium. Sometimes the two communities nurse ancient grievances side by side, as in Northern Ireland. The Protestant communities, which for a variety of reasons and motives cut themselves off from Rome, also cut themselves off from many possible devotional roads to God, because they saw such routes as part of Roman corruption. In one sense, therefore, the Re formation conflicts stifled diversity. Rome closed down options by the decisions of the Council of Trent; Protestants, too, were anxious to weed out rival versions of Protestantism where princes and magistrates gave them the chance, and they also rejected many alternatives suggested by more radical spirits. Yet that very cutting-down of options heightens the sense of difference between Catholic and Protestant Europe, because of the rival tidinesses that this process of sifting created. The decay of actual religious practice in Europe during the last century makes it all the more urgent a task to explain the reasons for Europe’s continuing diversity. The common Latin inheritance of Catholic and Protestant, besides and beyond their sixteenth-century quarrels, is the shaping fact of European identity, but it has become a divided inheritance.
Both the division and the original inheritance continue to shape Europe’s effect on the rest of the modem world, for the story of the sixteenth-century Reformation is not only relevant to the little continent of Europe. At the same time as Latin Christian Europe’s common culture was falling apart, Europeans were establishing their power in the Americas and on the coasts of Asia and Africa; so all their religious divisions were reproduced there. Because the two first great powers to embark on this enterprise remained loyal to the pope, the early story of Europe’s religious expansion is more about Catholics than Protestants—with one huge exception. In the United States of America, Protestantism stemming from England and Scotland set the original patterns of identity, and the diversity within English Protestantism achieved a new synthesis. American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the sixteenth century. So the Reformation, particularly in its English Protestant form, has created the ideology dominant in the world’s one remaining superpower, and Reformation and Counter-Reformation ways of thought remain (often alarmingly) alive and central in American culture and in African and Asian Christianity, even when they have largely become part of history in their European homeland.
This book has no room to describe the ways in which European religion was transformed in these new settings, but it seeks to alert the reader to the different sources of the modern worldwide religious mixture, and how western Europe began exporting its ways of worshipping God to other continents. It will tell a story, to begin with and as far as possible, as an interwoven narrative, because that is how people experienced events. Doing this also minimizes the unfortunate tendency to present the Reformation solely in terms of a handful of significant males, principally Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Loyola, Cranmer, Henry VIII and a number of popes. These figures are only part of a story which also involves the movements of popular feeling, the slowly changing lifestyles of ordinary people, and the political and dynastic concerns of landed elites. This is far from saying that the theologians of the Reformation are unimportant, or that they should be ignored. One conclusion to be drawn from the accumulation of recent research on the Latin Church before the upheaval was that it was not as corrupt and ineffective as Protestants have tended to portray it, and that it generally satisfied the spiritual needs of late medieval people.
That recovered perspective only serves to emphasize the importance of the ideas the reformers put forward. They were not attacking a moribund Church that was an easy target, ripe for change; but despite this, their message could still seize the imaginations of enough people to overcome the power and success of the old church structures. Ideas mattered profoundly; they had an in dependent power of their own, and they could be corrosive and destructive. The most corrosive ideas of all were to be found in the Bible, an explosive, unpredictable force in every age. It will do no harm for the reader trying to make sense of these tangled events to have a Christian Bible ready to hand, or at least to have some mental picture of how the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are arranged. It will also help to read through the various key statements of Christianity provided at the end of this book: two creeds, the Ten Commandments in two significantly different arrangements, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the minimum kit that those caught up in the Reformation would have had at their disposal.
The Reformation is contained within the period historians customarily describe as early modern. Outsiders to historical shoptalk may find this a rather confusing usage, but it is less clumsy than some of the alternatives, and so is a useful label that will appear from time to time in this book. The early modern era is generally reckoned to run from the late fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and my survey, after setting the medieval background, runs from around 1490 to around 1700. The 1490s are an appropriate place to start be cause the new fact about European politics was the shift of warfare to Italy, as the ruling families of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire (Valois, Trastamara, and Habsburg) contended for a leading position in Europe. It was as decisive a change as that later convulsion centering on the Habsburgs, the Thirty Years’ War.
The power of ideas explains why the Reformation was such a continent-wide event: Using the common language of Latin, which all educated people spoke and wrote, religious revolutionaries could spread their message across smaller-scale culture and language barriers. So this continent-wide narrative, the first third of the book, is shaped by crisis points. Such moments are 1517, when the Church’s supposedly reforming Lateran Council ended without achieving much, and when Luther caught the imagination of central Europe as a symbol of social transformation; 1525, the culmination of seven years of popular excitement in which anything seemed possible, ending in the defeat of the German peasants’ rebellion and widespread popular disillusion; 1541-42, a moment when prospects for reunion and a civilized settlement of religious arguments were real, only to end in disappointment and futility; 1570-72, when a clutch of separate political crises shifted the balance in favor of Protestants in the north, and of Catholics in the south. Throughout these narratives, when England appears in the story, the aim is to escape the complacent insularity that has particularly afflicted the historiography of the Church of England—to show how a kaleidoscope of religious loyalties in offshore islands interacted with changes in mainland Europe, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.
As religious divisions become ever greater, it becomes necessary to split the narrative, so that Part II consists of a series of regional narratives from 1570, between northern, southern, and central Europe. This post- era also witnessed a process to which historians have given the unlovely but perhaps necessary jargon label “confessionalization”: the creation of fixed identities and systems of beliefs for separate churches, which had previously been more fluid in their self-understanding, and had not begun by seeking separate identities for themselves—they had wanted to be truly Catholic and reformed. Confessionalization represents the defeat of attempts to rebuild the unified Latin and Catholic Church. In 1618 the outbreak of the most widespread war fare so far in the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, sealed that defeat. A fragile fifty-year balance between confessional groupings in central Europe was overturned by a political crisis in the kingdom of Bohemia, which sought to throw off Catholic Habsburg rule by electing a German Calvinist monarch; in 1619 this effort was crushed. The resulting war destroyed much of the religious diversity of Reformation Europe, so that the exhausted and polarized society that emerged in 1648 looked very different from that of 1618. Separate from the short treatment of the Thirty Years’ War is the section on the Atlantic Isles— England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. This exception is not just a revival of British insularity: It deals with the British political and religious crisis that ran through three decades from the 162os and produced one of the most important consequences of the European Reformation, the export of a militant form of English Protestantism to North America.
Once this chronological narrative is complete, the third section takes up social and intellectual themes that do not lend themselves so readily to chronological treatment. Much of this story has traditionally been left on the sidelines. I examine the experience of the Reformation, not merely everyday life, but changing ideas about time and about how the tangible life of this world might relate to the world beyond death. I explore the place of women and children in the newly created societies, together with what it was to be deviant amid these changing certainties, and what happened to deviants. Finally, we may gain some clues as to why, uniquely among world cultures, the descendants of Latin Christianity have begun to reject belief systems sanctioned by a sacred book—or at least, who hinted to them that they might do so.
My own viewpoint is neither confessional nor dogmatically Christian. My religious background is in the Anglican Communion, coming as I do from a line of Scottish Episcopalian clergy who have merited an entry in Crockford’s Clerical Directory continuously from the 1890s. I retain a warm sympathy for Anglicanism at its best: its distinctive, low-temperature culture and art, its ability and readiness to question itself, and an attitude toward the exploration of truth that is both reverently cynical and patiently serious. I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so). In trying to describe the Reformation to a world that has largely forgotten or half understood what it was about, I regard that as an advantage. “Blind unbelief is sure to err,” sang the Christian hymn writer William Cowper in Georgian England. Historians are likely to retort that blind belief has a record even more abysmal: Historical narratives told with a confessional viewpoint lurking in the background are very likely to bend the story to fit irrelevant preconceptions.
Over the last few years I have been coeditor, first with Martin Brett and now with James Carleton Paget, of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, which for more than half a century has been a chief forum for its subject. Even though the task has necessarily involved administrative and editorial drudgery, it has also been an exciting privilege: an unrivaled chance to see the extent of research and the emergence of original thought across the whole field of Christian history. Frequently much of this knowledge remains locked inside the world of specialists. If this book can help to liberate such research for wider enjoyment and understanding, then I will feel that it has done a good job.
Note on Usages and Proper Names
All primary-source quotations are in modern spelling. I am more of a devotee of capital letters than is common today; in English usage, they are symbols of what is special, different, and in the context of this book, of what links the profane and the sacred world. The body of the faithful, the worldwide organization called the Church, deserves a capital, although a building called a church does not. The Mass and the Rood need capitals; both their devotees and those who hated them would agree on that. So do the Bible, the Eucharist, Savior, the Blessed Virgin, and the persons of the Trinity. My decisions on this have been arbitrary, but I hope that they are at least internally consistent.
My general practice with place names has been to give the modern usage (sometimes with the contemporary usage in brackets)—so Regensburg not Ratisbon, Leuven not Louvain, Timisoara not Temesvár—except where, in context, the sixteenth-century usage better reflects the general population of that time: so Danzig not Gdansk, Konigsberg not Kaliningrad, Strassburg not Strasbourg, and Nikolsburg not Mikulov (such variants are cross-referenced in the index). The common English versions of overseas place names (such as Brunswick, Hesse, Milan, or Munich) are also used. Readers will be aware that the collection of islands that embraces England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales has commonly been known as the British Isles. This title no longer pleases all the inhabitants of the islands, and a more neutral as well as more accurate description is the Atlantic Isles, which will be used throughout the book.
Personal names of individuals are generally given in the birth language they would have spoken, except in the case of certain major figures in Europe, such as rulers or clergy (like the emperor Charles V, the kings of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, or John Calvin), who were addressed in several languages by various groups among their subjects or colleagues. Scholarly clerics and academics at the time often adopted Latinized or ersatz-Greek names from their places of origin, like Johannes Pomeranus (“the Pomeranian”) for Johann Bugenhagen, or as translations of their ordinary surnames, like Johannes Oecolampadius for Johann Hussgen (“John House Lamp”!). Although to some extent an affectation, such names also served to emphasize the international nature of European culture and the pan-European applicability of ideas. I use them where they are more customary than other forms—again with a cross-reference in the index. Many readers will be aware of the Dutch convention of writing down names such as Pieterszoon as Pietersz: I hope that they will forgive me if I extend these, to avoid confusion for others. Similarly in regard to Hungarian names, I am not using the Hungarian convention of putting first name after surname: so I will speak of Gábor Bethlen, not Bethlen Gábor. The family name of the Scottish royal family perhaps deserves its own footnote: Its spelling in a Scots context is normally Stewart, but when it is transplanted to England to preside over a dual (in fact triple) monarchy after 1603, in an English context it becomes Stuart. This may seem arbitrary, but that is how it is.
I have tried to avoid cluttering the main text with birth and death dates for people mentioned; the reader will find them in the index. I employ the Common Era usage in dating, since it avoids value judgments about the status of Christianity relative to other systems of faith. Dates, unless otherwise stated, are Common Era (C.E.) the system that Christians have customarily called Anno Domini (A.D.). Dates before I (C.E.) are given as B.C.E. (Before Common Era), which is equivalent to B.C. I hope, however, that non-Christian readers will forgive me if, for simplicity’s sake, I generally call the Hebrew Scripture the Old Testament, in parallel to the Christian New Testament.