3.12: Religion and Reformation during the Renaissance

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was the permanent split within the Catholic church that resulted in multiple competing denominations (versions, essentially) of Christian practice and belief. From the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy, these new denominations – lumped together under the category of “Protestant” – were nothing more or less than new heresies, sinful breaks with the correct, orthodox beliefs and practices of the Church. The difference between Protestant churches and earlier heretical movements was that the Church proved unable to stamp them out or re-assimilate them into mainstream Catholic practice. Thus, what began as a protest movement against corruption within the Church very quickly evolved into a number of widespread and increasingly militant branches of Christianity itself.

The context of the Reformation was the strange state of the Catholic Church as of the late fifteenth century. The Church was omnipresent in early-modern European society. About one person in seventy-five was part of the Church, as priests, monks, nuns, or members of lay orders. Practically every work of art depicted Biblical themes. The Church oversaw births, marriages, contracts, wills, and deaths – all law was, by implication, the law of God Himself. Furthermore, in Catholic doctrine, spiritual salvation was only accessible through the intervention of the Church; without the rituals (sacraments) performed by priests, the soul was doomed to go to hell. Finally, popes fought to claim the right to intervene in secular affairs as they saw fit, although this was a fight they had never had much luck with, losing even more ground as the new, more powerful and centralized, monarchies rose to power in the fifteenth century.

Simply put, as of the Renaissance era, all was not well with the Church. The Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism both undermined the Church’s authority. The stronger states of the period claimed the right to appoint bishops and priests within their kingdoms, something that the monarchs of England and France were very successful in doing. This led both laypeople and some priests themselves to look to monarchs, rather than the pope, for patronage and authority.

At the same time, elite churchmen (including the popes themselves) continued to live like princes. The papacy not only set a bad example, but attempts to reform the lifestyles and relative piety of priests generally failed; the papacy was simply too remote from the everyday life of the priesthood across Europe, and since elite churchmen were all nobles, they usually continued to live like nobles. In many cases, they openly lived with concubines, had children, and worked to ensure that their children receive lucrative positions in the Church. Laypeople were well aware of the slack morality that pervaded the Church. Medieval and early-modern literature is absolutely shot through with satirical tracts mocking immoral priests, and depictions of hell almost always featured priests, monks, and nuns burning alongside nobles and merchants.

These patterns affected monasticism as well. The idea behind monastic orders had been imitating the life of Christ, yet by the early modern period, many monasteries (especially urban ones) ran successful industries, and monks often lived in relative luxury compared to townspeople. Furthermore, the monasteries had been very successful in buying up or receiving land as gifts; by the late fifteenth century a full 20% of the land of the western kingdoms was owned by monasteries. The contrast between the required vow of poverty taken by monks and nuns and the wealth and luxury many monks and nuns enjoyed was obvious to laypeople.

The result of this widespread concern with corruption was a new focus on the inner spiritual life of the individual, not the focus on and respect for the priest, monk, or nun. New movements sprung up around Europe, including one called Modern Devotion in the Netherlands, that focused on moral and spiritual life of laypeople outside of the auspices of the Church. The handbook of the Modern Devotion was called The Imitation of Christ, written in the mid-fifteenth century and published in various editions after that, which was so popular that its sales matched those of the Bible at the time. It promoted the idea of salvation without needing the Church as an intermediary at all.

Within the Church, there were widespread and persistent calls for reform to better address the needs of the laity and to better live up to the Church’s own moral standards. Numerous devout priests, monks, and nuns abhorred the corruption of their peers and superiors in the Church and called for change – the Spanish branch of the Church enjoyed a strong period of reform during the fifteenth century, for example. Despite this reforming zeal within the Church and the growing popularity of lay movements outside of it, however, almost no one anticipated a permanent break from the Church’s hierarchy itself.

The Catholic Reformation

Historians have traditionally referred to the major changes that took place in the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation as the “Counter-Reformation,” a movement that was essentially reactionary. More recently, however, historians have come to recognize that it is probably more accurate and useful to see this period of church history as a Catholic Reformation unto itself – the culmination of the reformist trends that had been present in the Church for centuries before Martin Luther set off the Protestant break with the Roman Church.

Luther, after all, had not set out to split the Church, but to reform it – hence the very term “Reformation.” His positioned radicalized quite quickly, however, and he did openly defy both the pope and the Church hierarchy within just a few years of the posting of the 95 Theses. That being noted, one of the reasons that Lutheranism caught on so quickly was that there were large numbers of people within the Church who had long fought for, or at least hoped for, significant changes. Thus, while the Catholic Reformation began as a reaction against Protestantism, it culminated in reforming the Church itself.

Initially, most members of the Church hierarchy were overwhelmed and bewildered by the emergence of Protestantism. All of the past heresies had remained limited in scope as compared with the incredible rapidity with which Lutheranism spread. For practical political reasons, the pope and various rulers were either unwilling or unable to use force to crack down on Protestantism at first, as witnessed with Charles V’s failed attempts to curtail Lutheranism’s spread. Lutheranism also spread much more quickly than had earlier heresies, which tended to be limited to certain regions; here, the fact that Luther and his followers readily embraced the printing press to spread their message made a major impact, with word of the new movement spreading across Europe over the course of the 1520s.

In historical hindsight, the shocking aspect of the Catholic Church’s initial reaction to the emergence of Protestantism is that there was no reaction. For decades, popes remained focused on the politics of Central Italy or simply continued beautifying Rome and enjoying a life of luxury; this was the era of the “Renaissance popes,” men from elite families who regarded the papal office as little more than a political position that happened to be at the head of the Church. Likewise, there was no widespread awareness among most Church officials that anything out of the ordinary was taking place with Luther; despite the radicalism of his position, most of the clergy assumed that Lutheranism was a “flash in the pan,” doomed to fade back into obscurity in the end. By the 1540s, however, church officials began to take the threat posed by Protestantism more seriously.

The initial period of Catholic Reformation, from about 1540 – 1550, was a fairly moderate one that aimed to bring Protestants back into the fold. In a sense, the very notion of a permanent break from Rome was difficult for many people, certainly many priests, to conceive of. After about 1550, however, when it became clear that the split was permanent, the Church itself became much more hardline and intolerant. The subsequent reforms were as much about imposing a new internal discipline as they were in making membership appealing to lay Catholics.

The same factors that had made the Church difficult to reform before the Protestant break made it strong as an institution that opposed the new Protestant denominations: habit, ritual, organization, discipline, hierarchy, and wealth all worked to preserve the Church’s power and influence. Likewise, many princes realized that Protestantism often led to political problems in their territories; even though many of the German princes had originally supported Luther in order to protect their own political independence, many others came to realize that the last thing they wanted were independent-minded denominations in their territories, some of which might reject their worldly authority completely (as had the German peasants who rose up in 1524).

Among Catholics at all levels of social hierarchy, Catholic rituals were comforting, and even though rejecting the excesses in Catholic ritual had been part of the appeal of Protestantism to some, to many others it was precisely those familiar rituals that made Catholicism appealing. The Catholic Reformation is often associated with the “baroque” style of art and music which encouraged an emotional connection with Catholic ritual and, potentially, with the experience of faith itself. The Church continued to fund huge building projects and lavish artwork, much of which was aimed to appeal to laypeople, not just serve as pretty decorations for high-ranking churchmen.

Likewise, there was a wave of Protestant conversions that spread very rapidly by the 1530s, but then as the Protestant denominations splintered off and turned on one another, the “purity” of the appeal of Protestantism faded. In other words, when Protestants began fighting each other with the same vigor as their attacks on Rome, they no longer seemed like a clear and simple alternative to Roman corruption.

The Results of Reformation

The battle lines between Protestantism and Catholicism were firmly set by the 1560s. The Catholic Reformation established Catholic orthodoxy and launched a massive, and largely successful, campaign to re-affirm the loyalty and enthusiasm of Catholic laypeople. Meanwhile, Protestant leaders were equally hardened in their beliefs and actively inculcated devotion and loyalty in their followers. Nowhere was there the slightest notion of “religious tolerance” in the modern sense – both sides were convinced that anyone and everyone who disagreed with their spiritual outlook was damned to an eternity of suffering. The wars of propaganda and evangelism gave way to wars of muskets and pikes soon enough.

By the late sixteenth century, the lines of division within western Christianity were permanently drawn. Christianity was (and remains, although the enmity between the different groups is much less pronounced in the modern era) divided as follows:

The Catholic (Roman/Latin) Church

The Catholic Church remained dominant in almost all of southern Europe, including Italy, Spain, Austria, parts of the Balkans, and kingdoms like Poland as well. Catholic minorities existed either openly or in secret depending on the relative hostility of the local rulers throughout much of the rest of Europe.

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church was the product of medieval divisions within the Church itself, pitting the western papacy against the Byzantine emperors. It was unaffected by the Protestant Reformation, since the Reformation occurred in Western Europe. Thus, the Orthodox church remained in place in Greece, parts of the Balkans, and Russia.

The Protestant Churches

“Protestant” came to mean all of the different groups that broke away from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. These denominations included Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and other (generally smaller and less historically significant at the time) denominations like Anabaptism. Protestant churches dominated in northern Europe, including much of Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, England and Scotland. There was also a very significant minority of Huguenots – French Calvinists – in the southern half of France.