Neil Faulkner looks at how the Reformation was followed by a counter-revolutionary response which involved a dogmatic reassertion of Catholic orthodoxy: the Counter-Reformation.
He who half makes a revolution merely digs his own grave: so said the great French revolutionary Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-1794). The socialist historian R H Tawney made the same point slightly differently when he wrote that you cannot skin a tiger claw by claw.
When the popular Reformation was defeated by the aristocratic Reformation across much of Europe in the mid 16th century, the power of the new religion to mobilise the masses and transform society was undermined. This gave the gathering forces of feudal-absolutist reaction an opening.
Just as the bourgeois revolution had begun as an ideological movement of religious reform, so the counter-revolutionary response involved a dogmatic reassertion of Catholic orthodoxy: the Counter-Reformation.
The Council of Trent, meeting between 1545 and 1563, issued a series of decrees with two main aims: to reduce corruption in the Church, and to reassert Catholic dogma.
Absenteeism, the holding of multiple posts, and the buying and selling of ecclesiastical positions were banned. New training seminaries were established. Thus were the quality and attentiveness of the priests and bishops who formed Catholicism’s ideological front-line to be improved.
At the same time, the Council was uncompromising in its reassertion of the medieval doctrines that distinguished Catholicism from Protestantism: the worship of saints; salvation through ‘good works’; the tradition of the ‘seven sacraments’; the ‘real presence of Christ in the holy eucharist’ (a wafer of bread); and the ‘infallibility’ (ecclesiastical dictatorship) of the Papacy.
The Council of Trent shored up the Church’s defences. Two other features of the Counter-Reformation involved going onto the offensive.
In 1540, the Pope gave his approval to the Society of Jesus, a religious order founded by Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish soldier turned ascetic, mystic, and theologian. Carefully selected, highly trained, and tightly disciplined, the Jesuits became the ‘special forces’ operatives of the Counter-Reformation.
As well as being active in the Catholic heartlands and as missionaries in the Americas and the Indies, they formed an underground network of subversion in the Protestant-ruled states of Northern Europe.
The Church’s second offensive arm was the Inquisition. The Inquisition had first taken shape during the Church’s struggle against the Albigensian ‘heretics’ of Southern France in the early 13th century. But it had survived only in Spain, first as an arm of the feudal struggle against the Moors, then as a prop of the new absolutist monarchy.
The unity of Spain, Austria, and Germany under Charles V (1516-1556), and the decision of the Pope in 1542 to re-establish it in Italy, transformed the Inquisition into a pan-European agency of repression.
Run by six cardinals in Rome, the ‘Holy Office of the Inquisition’ became a permanent counter-revolutionary tribunal from which there was no appeal. Inquisitors could enter any Catholic country with the right to arrest and torture ‘heretics’, confiscate their property, and hand over the condemned for execution.
The Inquisition also enforced the Index: a regularly updated list of books which should be burnt. Where the writ of the Inquisition ran, it threatened art, science, and freedom of thought and enquiry.
Art and architecture were fossilised in the Baroque style’s glorification of power, wealth, and the mystical mumbo-jumbo of Catholicism. As well as books, scientists themselves were sometimes burnt alive. To think aloud became dangerous in Counter-Reformation Europe.
Spain was the archetypal Counter-Reformation state, and Philip II (1556-1598) was the archetypal Catholic despot - gloomy, ponderous, bureaucratic, bigoted, and life-hating.
Philip asserted the ‘divine right of kings’. Everyone addressed him on bended knee. The Cortes was deprived of power, the nobility transformed into a caste of sycophantic courtiers. Local powers were curtailed, authority centralised.
The King himself presided over the ghastly autos-da-f√© (‘acts of faith’) - the Inquisition’s rituals of public execution - by which Spanish Protestantism was destroyed in ten years.
Moors (Spanish Muslims) were subject to extreme oppression: they were forbidden to speak Arabic, wear native dress, or follow traditional marriage and funerary customs. When they rebelled in 1568, order was restored with wholesale exterminations.
The situation in France was different. Spanish feudalism had achieved a higher degree of centralisation during the Middle Ages because of the internal struggle against the Moors. The French monarchy had always been weaker.
Parts of France were more economically developed than Spain. The Protestant Reformation had therefore made greater inroads, establishing itself over about a third of France. Some 2,500 churches were holding ‘synods’ (councils).
As elsewhere, the French Reformation had been pushed forwards from below by ‘the middling sort’. But sections of the French nobility had converted and placed themselves at the head of the Protestant community (or ‘Huguenots’) in order to advance their dynastic interests.
In 1562, soldiers of the Duke of Guise carried out a massacre of Protestants. The Prince of Cond√©, a leading Protestant noble, immediately called his supporters and co-religionists to arms. For almost 40 years, France was racked by religious warfare between rival aristocratic factions.
In August 1572, the ‘Wars of Religion’ took the extreme form of pogroms. The ‘Massacre of St Bartholomew’ in Paris was followed by series of copycat massacres in other major French towns. The Inquisition had destroyed the weak popular Reformation in Spain. Catholic death-squads played the same role in France.
The war continued, however. The massacres made it more embittered, but also strengthened top-down aristocratic control, as ordinary people sought military protection. The radical potential of the Reformation was further distorted by the logic of aristocratic faction and religious warfare.
The war ended in a compromise. The Protestant leader Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV (1589-1610) - but, to reunite the fractured state, he renounced his faith and proclaimed conversion to Catholicism (1593). Once the last centres of resistance had been reduced, he issued the Edict of Nantes (1598), granting freedom of conscience and worship to the Huguenots.
The wars had inflicted huge economic damage, and the degeneration of the Reformation into aristocratic factionalism had halted its advance. These consequences of the Wars of Religion would determine the course of French history for the next 200 years.
A powerful absolute monarchy would emerge during the 17th century. Aristocratic castles would be destroyed by royal cannon, and the nobility converted into courtiers. A ‘state feudal’ regime would fossilise social relations, hold back economic development, and impose huge military burdens on French society.
The triumph of the absolutist state over civil society would be symbolised by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, turning Huguenots into a persecuted minority.
The final result of the defeat of the popular Reformation in the 16th century would be the accumulation of contradictions that produced the Great French Revolution of 1789.
The Counter-Reformation was triumphant in Spain and Italy, and made major advances in Germany and France. But the Reformation survived in Northern Europe. And because of that, it was this region that now became the power-house of global history.
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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