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9-08-2015, 15:26

Religious reform and consolidation, 1450–1600

In 1521, Martin Luther (1483–1546), a professor of theology at the German University of Wittenberg, stood before the Diet of Worms, an assembly of representatives from the nobility, church, and cities in the Holy Roman Empire. Speaking loudly to the group, which included the Emperor Charles V, Luther refused to give in to demands that he take back his ideas. “Unless I am convinced of error by the testimony of Scripture and plain reason,” he said, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” By the nineteenth century, these words were viewed as the beginning of modern religious individualism and freedom of conscience, joining Renaissance art and the voyages of Columbus as the origins of the modern world. “Here I stand” was the title of what was for decades the most popular biography of Luther, published in 1950 by Roland Bainton, the leading Reformation scholar of his day. These words continue to be highlighted in the twenty-fi rst century; they are on socks for sale in gift shops in Luther’s hometown, and in both television documentaries and movies, one of which describes Luther as “rebel … genius … liberator.” While the popular view of Luther as heroic revolutionary remains strong, most scholars of religion today put less emphasis on Luther alone as the source of religious change or the originator of religious individualism. They point out that although most medieval people were satisfi ed with the church, from the twelfth century onward a number of groups and individuals increasingly criticized many aspects of western Christianity, and suggested reforming institutions, improving clerical education and behavior, and even altering basic doctrines. Occasionally these reform efforts succeeded in changing the Roman church, and in at least one area, Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic), they led to the formation of a church independent of Rome, a century before Luther. In Luther’s own day a number of other reformers developed their own ideas largely independently of Luther’s infl uence and often disagreed with him. The Reformation was thus from the beginning a plural movement with diverse ideas. Luther himself often reacted harshly to those who disagreed with him, labeling them “heretics” or “fanatics” or “Satanic,” indicating that there were clear limits to his ideas about the primacy of conscience and the possibility of individual interpretation. Even the famous words “Here I stand” have not stood up to scholarly scrutiny. Luther did appear at Worms and defend himself, and his words as written down by several in attendance were roughly similar to the speech given above; these eye-witness accounts do not include “Here I stand,” however, which was added later as a – very effective – rhetorical fl ourish. This de-emphasis on the centrality of Luther has not meant that historians have de-emphasized the importance of religion in the early modern period, however: quite the opposite. The reform movement of which Luther was a part lasted far longer than the few decades during which he was active, and had political, social, economic, and intellectual ramifi cations far beyond what is today usually understood as the “religious” realm of life. The ideas of Luther and other reformers were attractive to political leaders, who broke with the papacy and the Roman church and established their own local churches: churches that came to be labeled “Protestant” after a 1529 document issued by German princes protesting an imperial order that they give up their religious innovations. Their motivations were mixed and varied; spiritual aims blended with desires to end the economic and political power of the papacy in their territories, gain the income from church lands, and oppose neighboring states who remained Catholic. The plurality of the early Reformation coalesced into “confessions” – major variants whose identities were defi ned by long statements of faith and differentiated from one another through the actions of political and religious authorities. (Different groups within Christianity, such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or Catholics, are now generally called denominations instead of confessions. ) Historians call this process “confessionalization,” and note that it involved Catholics, as well as different types of Protestants, opening schools, requiring attendance at sermons, improving clerical education, and undertaking a number of other measures. Rulers and clergy also sought to make their states and their communities more moral and orderly, in a process related to confessionalization that historians term “social discipline.” They passed laws against blasphemy, dancing, and other activities judged immoral, began to keep records of marriages, births, baptisms, and deaths so that they could better monitor the status of individuals, and increased the power of courts; the motto of one of these courts was “discipline is the sinews of the church.” 1 Catholic theologians believed that without good works individuals could not call upon God’s saving power, while Protestant theologians saw them as the fruit of a saving faith given by God. Thus for both Catholics and Protestants, one’s sexual, leisure, and workplace activities – and those of one’s neighbors – continued to be important in God’s eyes. Throughout Europe the emphasis on political and social order led to the persecution of Christians whose understanding of Christianity differed from that of those in power. Catholic leaders imprisoned and executed Protestants, while Protestants imprisoned and executed Catholics and other types of Protestants. Individuals and groups who developed doctrines seen as “radical” – such as communal ownership of property, a rejection of infant baptism, or a questioning of the Trinity – were harassed and suppressed by all sides. Both Protestants and Catholics hunted, arrested, and executed people believed to be witches, viewing them as in league with the devil and thus opponents of proper religious and social order. (Witchcraft will be discussed in detail in chapter 11 .) This attempt to get rid of internal enemies was accompanied by religious wars in different parts of Europe from the mid-1520s onward; war plus religious persecution led to large numbers of refugees moving from place to place. In some places, especially France and the Netherlands, popular riots designed to rid the community of the symbols of other religions sometimes turned against people as well as property. The suppression of ideas judged religiously deviant, and the use of violence to wipe them out, had not been unknown in western Europe before the sixteenth century – both a crusade and a special papal inquisition had been sent against the Albigensians, a heretical group in southern France in the thirteenth century, for example – but the extent of both increased signifi cantly. Eastern Orthodoxy – divided into different national churches including Greek, Russian, and Serbian – did not see a dramatic split in the sixteenth century similar to that in the western church. Orthodoxy was affected by movements of moral reform, and secular rulers in some places increased their control over church life in the same way that Protestant rulers did. As we will see in more detail in chapter 11 , the Russian patriarchate was moved from Kiev to Moscow, and in 1589 came under the direct control of the tsar. With the expansion of Turkish holdings in the Balkans, many Orthodox Christians lived under Muslim rule. The limits of Christian independence were set by the sultan, who also had both religious and political authority over his Muslim subjects. Movements to enhance religious uniformity throughout Europe had negative effects on the Jews. In 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain, and in the sixteenth century fi rst Venice and then other Italian cities ordered Jews to live together in areas separated from Christians, which the Venetian Senate and then other authorities called “ghettos,” a word derived from the Italian word for foundry because Venetian Jews were relegated to an island where a foundry had been located. In his later works, Luther called Jews “disgusting vermin,” and recommended that they be expelled from the Holy Roman Empire; his words provoked anti-Jewish riots in Braunschweig. Thus the signifi cant religious developments of this era range far beyond the theological disputes in the western church of the 1520s and 1530s, and far beyond the ideas of a single individual. Certain fi gures, however, including Martin Luther, Henry VIII of England, and Ignatius Loyola, are still extremely important, in both the ways their actions shaped religious change and the ways their personal histories typifi ed the interweaving of religion with other developments of this era.