The Reformation after 1521 tore apart church and state. Neil Faulkner looks at how the new social forces formed inside late medieval Europe helped undermine the thousand year domination of the Roman Catholic Church.
Before the 18th century, religious belief was almost universal, and theology provided the language in which men and women discussed their relationships not only God, but also with each other.
When they conformed, they did so because it was ‘God’s will’. When they rebelled, this was also ‘God’s will’.
And when they moved from conformity to rebellion, it was not because God had changed his mind; it was because the world had changed.
The Roman Catholic Church had dominated Western Europe for a thousand years. Challenges to the authority of its prelates and dogmas had always been crushed. A succession of ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’ had been broken on the rack and burnt at the stake.
Only undercurrents of resistance remained. There were secret adherents of the Waldensians in European cities, of the Hussites in Bohemia, and of the Lollards in England.
Each of these had once been mass popular movements. But none of them had come close to doing what the Reformation was to do after 1521 - tear apart church and state. What now made this possible was the maturity of the new social forces that had been forming inside late medieval Europe.
The crisis began at the ideological level. The Church was rotten with corruption. The Papacy had become a prize fought over by rival Italian aristocratic families. Cardinals and bishops enriched themselves by holding multiple appointments. ‘Indulgences’ - forgiveness for sins - were sold like commodities. Many monks lived in luxury. Priests were often ignorant and lazy.
The Church owned vast tracts of land. Abbots and bishops were immensely rich. But this was also true of kings and secular nobles. What laid the ecclesiastical section of the feudal ruling class especially open to attack was the moral hypocrisy implicit in the corruption of the Church - the contradiction between wealth and mission.
When, in 1517, a minor German cleric and scholar called Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, his attack on the sale of indulgences and other abuses attracted widespread support.
This gave him the confidence to persist. When the Pope threatened him with excommunication in 1520, he burned the ‘Bull of Antichrist’ in Wittenberg town square. And when the Holy Roman Emperor (the ruler of most of Central Europe) summoned him to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and threatened to burn him as a ‘heretic’, he refused to retract.
What made Luther’s message so revolutionary was his rejection of priestly authority. Protestants - as they came to be called - were encouraged to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Salvation, it turned out, depended not upon church attendance, obedience to the priest, or charitable donations, but upon each worshipper’s personal relationship with God.
The second phase of the Reformation was led by John Calvin (1509-1564), a French exile who settled in Geneva and imposed a theocratic dictatorship on the city. He carried the rupture with the Catholic Church to its logical conclusion, rejecting the entire hierarchy of bishops, and advocating instead self-governing congregations ruled by elders - in effect, a church run by the local middle class.
The essence of the Reformation, therefore, was a break with the main ideological prop of feudalism - the Catholic Church - and a (controlled) explosion of free enquiry and debate.
Protestantism was, above all, the religion of ‘the middling sort’, the people who, across the most developed parts of Europe, were pioneers in capitalist farming and the growth of commerce and industry.
The German towns were immediately thrown into ferment by Luther’s message. The urban guilds - resentful of feudal dues, Church tithes, and the social dominance of mercantile elites - rallied to the new religion. Many towns went Lutheran in the initial wave of enthusiasm in 1521-1522. Eventually, two-thirds of the German towns were to follow them.
The impoverished knights of southern Germany also launched a revolt in 1522-1523. They, however, were defeated by the ruling princes. The Reformation was already meeting resistance from above.
The far more serious revolt of the German peasants in 1524-1525 was also defeated. Rising from the depths of society, it represented a challenge to the entire feudal order. The ‘Twelve Points’ of the Memmingen Charter - effectively the manifesto of the revolt - demanded an end to feudal dues, to encroachments on common land, to arbitrary justice, and to serfdom.
As the radical Protestant leader Thomas M√ºntzer put it, ‘Our sovereigns and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery ... They oppress the poor husbandmen and craftsmen.’
But Luther and the mainstream Protestant leaders denounced popular revolt and preached obedience to social elites. ‘Better the death of all peasants,’ announced Luther, ‘than of princes and magistrates.’ He wrote a tract entitled Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of the Peasants in which he encouraged feudal lords to kill peasant rebels ‘just as one must kill a mad dog’.
Many German princes were rallying to the Reformation. Luther himself had been rescued and given refuge by the Elector of Saxony in 1521. The popular Reformation ‘from below’ was countered by an aristocratic Reformation ‘from above’.
The princes had several reasons for supporting the Reformation. Because it was so powerful, it was often better to try and ride the tiger than to confront it head-on. Aristocratic leadership could cauterise more radical developments.
But the Reformation was also a useful device in furthering noble ambition. Protestantism became a mechanism for throwing off the authority of secular and ecclesiastical overlords, mobilising support against aristocratic rivals, and taking over Church property.
The German princes became Lutherans because they were hostile to both Pope and Emperor, but they employed fierce reactionary violence against more radical Protestants who appeared to imperil their own wealth and power. And when this happened, the Lutheran leaders backed them.
Something similar happened in France. Many nobles became Protestant as part of a bitter internal struggle between rival families. The Calvinist leaders backed this Reformation ‘from above’.
The result, in both Germany and France, was that the struggle between Catholic and Protestant resolved itself into a ‘war of religion’ between opposing alliances of magnates.
Protestantism lost momentum once it ceased to be an expression of popular anti-feudal revolt and became little more than the badge of allegiance of an aristocratic faction. Southern Germany was recovered for the Emperor and the Church. The French Protestants remained a permanent minority in a mainly Catholic country ruled by an absolute monarch.
The defeat of the German Anabaptists symbolised the sharp break between the popular and aristocratic Reformations.
For nearly two years, in 1534-1535, the German town of M√ºnster was controlled by Anabaptist radicals led by a young Dutch tailor’s apprentice called Jan van Leyden. The Catholic and Lutheran elite was thrown out, an egalitarian commune was established, and the Anabaptists prepared for the anticipated ‘Day of Judgement’.
It never came. Instead, the local prince-bishop starved the city into submission, and then tortured the captured Anabaptist leaders to death.
The disjuncture between conservative and radical reformers destroyed the revolutionary potential of the Reformation in Germany and France.
But there were two parts of Europe where the outcome was to be very different. First in the Low Countries in 1566, then in England in 1640, the Protestant Reformation turned into full-blooded ‘bourgeois revolution’.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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