Reformation Europe / Edition 1

Reformation Europe / Edition 1

by Ulinka Rublack
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Cambridge University Press


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Reformation Europe / Edition 1

How could the Protestant Reformation take off from a tiny town in the middle of Saxony, which contemporaries regarded as a mud hole? How could a man of humble origins who was deeply scared by the devil become a charismatic leader and convince others that the pope was the living Antichrist? Martin Luther founded a religion which up to this day determines many people's lives in intimate ways, as did Jean Calvin in Geneva one generation later. This is the first book which uses the approaches of new cultural history to describe how Reformation Europe came about and what it meant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900521003697
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 03/07/2005
Series: New Approaches to European History Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.43(d)

About the Author

Ulinka Rublack is a Lecturer in History at Cambridge University and a Fellow of St John's College. Her previous publications include The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (1999).

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Reformation Europe
Cambridge University Press
0521802849 - Reformation Europe - by Ulinka Rublack

Prologue: Prophecy

In 1523, two university professors called Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon delivered to their Wittenberg printer a short pamphlet about two monsters. Melanchthon had written about a monster with a long, feminine body and an ass's head, Luther about a deformed calf which stood upright (see figure 1). The corpse of the ass-monster had surfaced in the Tiber in Rome in 1496; the calf had only recently been found in Saxony. Luther stated that since he was no prophet he was unable to identify providential signs. Even so, he knew that both 'gruesome figures' had been sent by God. He hoped that the end of the world was near. There had been so many signs that something had to happen. He explained that the calf with its ragged friar's clothes showed that God wanted monks and nuns to leave their convents.

Melanchthon likewise urged readers to take the signs seriously. The Roman monster had shown that the last days of the world had begun. Just as an ass's head did not fit a human body, so the Pope could never be the spiritual head of the church. The head of the church was Christ alone. Not just the head, but all parts of the monster's body bore meaning. Its left foot was like a griffon's, because the canons grabbed all the wealth of Europe for the Pope. The female belly and breast symbolised the Papacy's belly, 'that is, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, students and such like whorish people and pigs, because their whole life consists of nothing but gobbling food, of drinking and of sex'. The monster's skin was like that of a fish: this symbolised the princes who clung to the papal order; the old man's head on the monster's buttocks signalled the decline of papal power.1

The 'Pope-Ass' became an icon of Protestant propaganda. In 1545 she appeared on the first of a series of ten woodcuts entitled 'A true depiction of the Papacy', directed against the papal campaign to summon a

Figure 1. Lukas Cranach the Elder, The Pope-Ass, 1520.

church council. The monster now sported sexy legs, pointed breasts and a firm body, a depiction which symbolically linked sexualised femininity and evil (see cover illustration). This equation of the Papacy with a hybrid monster was to touch the audience's fascination with and fear of mixed categories, and a desire for clear codes of civilised male and female behaviour. Luther commented: 'This terrible image depicts what God thinks about the Papacy. Everybody who takes it to heart should be frightened.'2

Through such drastic words and images, the scholars Luther and Melanchthon and the artist Cranach changed the course of history. Their attacks on the corruption and hypocrisy of the institutions of the church showed extraordinary results. Countless monasteries and convents were dissolved. Monks, nuns and priests were released from their vows of celibacy, and exhorted to marry and start families. More Europeans than ever before refused to recognise the Pope as head of their church, and sought to give new moral and spiritual meaning to Christianity in their daily lives.

Luther's notion of Christian life, however, was surprisingly strongly linked to a sense of its end. The comments on the monsters convey the reformers' and many of their followers' idea of history, which is alien to most of us nowadays. Time was marked by divine providence. Almost everything that happened was controlled by God. Hence it was a Christian's duty to learn how to interpret signs which revealed God's will and to understand true divine doctrine. The end of the world was imminent. 'Antichrist' - Christ's eternal enemy - and Satan were wielding their power in it with unprecedented fury. The Antichrist had been thrown into hell by the archangel Michael, but was to return during the last days of the world. Shockingly, Luther revealed that the Papacy and Roman church themselves were not only mistaken in their views, but that they were the Antichrist!3

This critique was radical, and it radically transformed Christianity. Luther's reform movement spread from Wittenberg throughout Germany and many parts of Europe. From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards Christians were divided into Catholics and those protesting against Catholic doctrine - so-called 'Protestants'. Lutherans and Calvinists formed the most important Protestant faiths and found strong political support. Many smaller groups of believers, such as Mennonites and Quakers, established their religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and eventually took their creed from Europe to America and other parts of the globe.

Martin Luther initially did not intend to form a new church. Like many contemporaries and most reformers after him, Luther wanted one Reformed Christian church for all. 'Reformation' aimed at improving existing doctrine and institutional structures from within. In addition, Luther's Reformation was about the prospect of eternal salvation. He regarded himself as a divinely sent reformer who prepared humanity for the end of the world. Instead, unwittingly, he helped to create a faith which for a long time in Western history has determined some of the most intimate aspects of many people's lives: whom they would marry, whom they would fight, what they thought of as good or evil.

Religious world-views

Beliefs in monsters or the Antichrist seem to have little to do with the perhaps more familiar image of Luther as a 'rational', enlightened reformer. But writing Reformation history means engaging with the mindset of people whose very notions of time, space and existence were generally different from ours. Consider that before Copernicus published his main book on the heavens in 1543, and often for much longer, Europeans imagined the earth to be at the centre of the cosmos. Maps showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world. By Luther's time people were hearing about the 'New World' discovered by Columbus. The reformer Bullinger nonetheless asked: 'Who cares about Indians? Who cares about the Pope?' Christian culture continued to assert its difference from other ethnicities, and often violently so. Thus, between 1450 and 1550 Jews were increasingly accused of murdering Christian boys and desecrating hosts. They were either integrated in such a way as to show the superiority of Christians, or were converted or banished. In Spain, Muslims had been converted since the end of the fifteenth century. During the sixteenth century all their customs were forbidden and Christian churches were imposed on their settlements. Finally, they were forcibly resettled and then banished altogether. Turks were mostly imagined as slaughterers of innocent Christian children and successful ruler-warriors. Western politics continually faced the problem of how to counter Ottoman advances, which made the 'Turkish danger' manifest and the end of Christianity imaginable.

Then as now Christianity gave meaning to existence by means of a mythical narrative that connected the stories of both earth and cosmos. Building on Jewish tradition, this astonishing narrative began with God's creation of the world, the living together of man and animals, the expulsion from paradise through the fall of man, the birth of a divine son by a virgin, his life, crucifixion, ascension, and the possible prospect of a similar assumption of all dead either at the end of their lives or the end of the world.

Time was structured by the extremes of sin and salvation; past, present and future could never be experienced as fully separate. There had been important prophecies about the future in the past. The acts of the Antichrist perhaps rendered them present already. Everyday behaviour either pleased or offended God and had consequences for one's eternal life. A host of unsettling questions ensued from these views. How were sins judged? Could penalties be paid on earth? How close was the end of the world?

God revealed his truth and updated his judgements on the state of the world not just through a sole prophet and 'his church', but through the Bible, cosmic signs, such as comets, and worldly signs, such as floods, miracles and visions. These notions of divine action raised persistent debates about which human beings - Popes, cardinals, saints, learned theologians or ordinary virtuous Christians - and which institutions - such as church councils or universities - were appointed to reveal God's messages.

Early modern Christianity became even more complex through its belief in a host of mighty spiritual powers. The devil was given his power by God, but he seemed also able to counter some of God's plans. Luther, for instance, imagined their fight as a cosmic chess game, in which God failed to master some of the devil's moves or had to watch how his own moves might cause damage nonetheless. Nobody knew for sure whether certain things happened because of divine or evil intervention. Belief in demonically possessed witches rapidly spread during the sixteenth century. The persecution of witches and the learned debate about how to deal with them testify to the anxieties which ensued about the workings of evil in the world. John Dee, the English scholar and astrologer, conversely conducted conversations with angels as good spirits. The Hungarian king Stephen was intrigued. Queen Elizabeth Ⅰ remained sceptical.4

Early modern culture and existence therefore pondered the relationship between human action and the 'macro-cosmos' with utmost intensity and urgency. To what extent was human action autonomous and to what extent was it determined by God, evil powers, angels, or even the stars, fortune, luck and destiny? Could these forces be questioned and influenced in such a way that one knew how to act to avoid misfortune and fulfil one's wishes, or God's laws, in order to gain eternal life?

Along with humanism and its interest in antiquity, printed ideas and an expanded university education, the Reformation movements helped to provide yet more possible answers to these problems. Many debates had been prefigured during the Middle Ages. But now they were opened more widely, led to different conclusions and resonated with contemporary social and political change. Religion, in short, was no 'opium of the people'. It had the potential to change the order of the world.


And to many it seemed as if such a change was urgently needed. The church had appeared corrupt for a long time. The Papacy constituted an important political, military and territorial power. Monasteries and bishops owned land in all of Europe, and they and the urban clergy enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges. These were continually contested by peasants and burghers, noble families and rulers, and even by large sections of the clergy, who themselves campaigned for a poorer and purer life. France formed a national church to assert some autonomy from papal power during the fifteenth century. Spain and Portugal similarly fought for independence from Rome, their rulers preferring to nominate their own rather than papal favourites as bishops. While the powerful French, Spanish and Portuguese monarchies had thus chosen to maintain some independence from Rome within a unified Catholic church, the many different political agents in the German-speaking lands could not agree to form a national church.

A simple reason why Luther's movement found initial political support in Germany and finally led to the formation of a new church rests in the 'polycentric' structure of that strange political entity, the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation'. The make-up of this Empire can be sketched as follows. It mainly consisted of territories governed by a prince or by a bishop who simultaneously acted as secular prince, and of cities which were not ruled by princes. Around 1500, several 'free', Imperial cities of the South, like Augsburg and Nuremberg, were important centres of trade, while the northern Hanse cities, such as Hamburg and Lübeck, once more grew in importance as the North Atlantic trade took off around 1600. Representatives of free Imperial cities and territorial lords decided collectively about common concerns, while the Emperor was elected and his powers negotiated by a body of princes.5

Since 1440, only members of the house of Habsburg had been elected as Emperors, and they turned into a strange species of 'elected hereditary' rulers. Their hereditary lands were mainly in Austria. German princes thus avoided electing one of their own as Emperor, who then might have been able to extend his power over other German territories. They opted for a foreign power, and, after each voting prince had been substantially bribed, for a family whose increasingly manifold possessions seemed to guarantee financial resources and a restricted interest in German politics.

Ideally then, the Imperial constitution served the interest of all major political powers in Germany by ensuring as much protection and as much autonomy from the Emperor as possible. The Reformation movements made religious choice part of these complex political attempts to secure power and liberty. The Habsburgs remained Catholics. But as soon as it became clear that a number of princes would support the Reformation, a new era of religious politics between different confessions, an era of confessional politics therefore, began in Germany. This is not to say that, here as elsewhere, German powers decided on religious matters purely on political grounds. Closer analysis shows that some decisions were motivated by deep piety and others by interest in political gains, while most decisions were based on motives which escape our neat modern distinction between religion and politics. The acknowledged objective of politics was to honour God and install a 'truly' Christian order. The question was what constituted such an order.

Thus, in 1525 common people revolted in many parts of Germany to fight for their vision of a just and godly society. But they were quickly quietened - no true reformation from below was allowed to take place - 'godly authorities', magistrates and princes were to decide. And yet they themselves violently disagreed. In 1555, after two short wars between the Emperor, supported by German Catholics and Protestant forces, the Peace of Augsburg stipulated that each ruler should determine the faith in his or her territory, a decision later summarised by the formula cuius regio, eius religio, whose rule it is, whose religion it is. The Swiss Confederation had already been divided into Catholic and Reformed towns and regions since 1529. How would German Catholics and Protestants cooperate to conduct Imperial politics? For it was only after 1555 that three main confessions consolidated their Reformed institutions and doctrinal hold on the population: Lutheranism, Catholicism, with its renewed fervour after the Council of Trent (1545-63), and Calvinism, which emerged as the second mainstream Protestant faith and awaited its recognition by Imperial law. As Calvinism spread, the whole of Europe was undergoing dramatic changes. In France, the Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary and Poland, Reformed preaching attracted substantial parts of the population, and in England a Protestant culture became ingrained during Elizabeth Ⅰ's reign. The increasingly fragile period of cooperation among the German political powers and the further spreading of different faiths and allied power interests in Europe ended in the Thirty Years War.

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) was the longest and most extensive war over religion and power ever fought in Europe. The peace that was finally achieved affirmed much of the 1555 settlement for the German lands.6 The Holy Roman Empire continued to have no unified confession and thus no unified imperialist military goals. Calvinism was legitimised. The rights of religious minorities in the different territories were extended. Protestant and Catholic Imperial Estates were once more prepared to seek compromises in the interest of a 'reason of state'. The principles of federal cooperation were thus strengthened within the parameters which had been agreed in the late fifteenth century. German politics needed common instruments to keep the peace and uphold justice. The political forces financed institutions such as an Imperial Chamber Court. They continued trying to maintain independence from the Habsburgs in so far as it was useful and possible. Until the rise of Prussia as an overarching Protestant power within Germany after 1740 and the final unification of Germany in 1871, all governmental problems, such as the financial poverty of small territories or the ambitions of larger territories, were handled within this political framework and - remarkably - by representatives adhering to three Christian


When Leopold von Ranke began modern historical writing about the Protestant Reformation in the nineteenth century, he was fired by the vision he was witnessing of the rise of Prussia. Here was the historical chance to get rid of backward Catholicism, and to create a politically unified, strong, united Protestant state. Protestant history was thus interlinked with political concerns about German nationhood. To a surprising extent it has always remained so. Later generations, of course, followed different visions. For Marxist historians in the German Democratic Republic, the Reformation marked a national loss of any critical spirit towards authority, especially during the Peasants' War and through the alleged affirmation of princely authority and traditional social hierarchies by Lutheranism. Other historians have argued that the early 1520s represented a unique opportunity for a 'republican turn' in German politics.7 Current mainstream interpretations favour the liberal idea that the Reformation furthered the federative constitution and positive pluralism which distinguish Germany today.8 More radical historians assert that the Reformation and its contribution to a federal political structure saved Germany from the problematic consequences of the large European nation-states: absolutist power structures, aggressive warfare, empire-building and aggressive capitalism.9

What has changed since Ranke, too, is that Protestantism is no longer seen as a more 'modern' religion than Reformed Catholicism. It is recognised that renewed Catholicism made substantial efforts to teach people Christian doctrine, fight their 'superstitions' and discipline their behaviour.10 In addition, there are now more attempts to integrate what we know about different national Reformations into a synthesis charting what the Reformations meant for Europe as a whole. This clearly means emphasising that both Protestant and Catholic reform movements catalysed a series of crucial historical debates that have since shaped Western thought. They involved arguments for the freedom of opinion, for more participation in religious and political decision-making and the right of resistance against authority. They could even question the superiority of Christians over New World 'savages': French Protestants living around 1557 in Guanabana Bay in Brazil, for instance, saw no difference between cannibals and those who imagined they absorbed Christ's body with the host. Arguments of such a kind were further developed during the Enlightenment to support general religious tolerance and the further separation of state and confessional politics. All early modern men and women who voiced their views in these debates, only a minority of them intellectuals, played a part in this historical process of opinion formation.11

In spite of these heated debates, from the sixteenth century onwards Europeans had to face the fact that Western Christianity was divided and that completely different notions of what constituted a true religion coexisted among them. Opposing truth claims were dissected again and again. Over the centuries, the analytical tools which thus developed critically to assess truth claims and the sheer necessity for many people of dealing with different institutionalised religions day-by-day have contributed to our contemporary familiarity with a relativist world-view which no longer assumes the priority of any particular world religion.

Reformation history thus can no longer be plausibly written from a partisan perspective. Sociological and anthropological approaches have powerfully changed recent historiography. They suggest, above all, posing anew two simple questions: how did Luther and Calvin, who seem so strange to us in many respects nowadays, manage to gain any influence at all? What did their new religious 'truths' mean for people in their everyday lives?

In answering these questions this book proposes two arguments. First, that the success of Lutheranism and Calvinism can be analysed only by restoring to Wittenberg and Geneva a sense of place and personality. Luther and Calvin were not successful because people were waiting to hear their brilliant doctrine and only needed to hear the truth. They were successful because they found themselves in specific places with specific institutions and resources, and worked together with particular people in specific ways (chs. 1 and 3). They need to be portrayed not just as towering individual figures, but as highly able team-workers, group leaders and managers of human and institutional resources. Specific psychologies attached to how they built up and maintained their charisma, and both reformers helped to prepare their mythical memory among their supporters in Wittenberg and Geneva during their lives. It was, perhaps, less the uniqueness of their ideas than the much more mundane ways in which the reformers managed their movements in and from Wittenberg and Geneva which explains their success as founders of religious cults. This is why we need to begin to locate their work properly (see Epilogue).

Second, Protestant identities which developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe do not fit the image of a more 'modern' religion. These identities need to be understood in their own terms and time: as post-Reformation Protestantism (ch. 4). Protestantism in no way clearly contributed to a rationalisation of belief-systems and a 'disenchantment of the world' from 'magical-sensual' elements, as the sociologist Max Weber argued and as many people nowadays assume.12 On the contrary, it might be historically more accurate to talk about a Protestant 'super-enchantment' of the early modern world until c. 1650, because Protestantism lent such prominence to ideas about the Antichrist, devil, providence and eternity. Its focus on the 'Word' does not turn early modern Protestantism into a 'logo-centric' religion either. We need to ask what meanings were given to 'the Word' at the time, that is, which symbolic cultural practices were connected to the experience of hearing, speaking, singing or being silent, to writing and reading. Word-related practices were strongly imbued with sensual and emotional qualities. Certainly, prayer and psalm singing became more important than devotion of images, but no one would seriously maintain that this implies a more 'rational' relationship with the divine. We also need to recognise that religion is not defined by a fixed set of beliefs and ideas; it rests on their diverse social interpretation. We therefore need to know about the appropriation of ideas among noble families, artisans, and the marginal - men and women, young people and the old, town people and country folk, people in one village and another, in one region or country and another - for all these people, the records tell us, made religion work for themselves in different ways.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Prologue: prophecy; 1. Martin Luther's truth; 2. The age of heterodoxy; 3. Calvinism; 4. Truths of everyday life; Epilogue: towards a cultural history of the Reformation.

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