Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Religion

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Late-Medieval Church


The late-medieval church was vast and complex, the single largest and most diverse political institution of the Renaissance. In theory, the church’s governmental structure was a pyramid in which the papacy sat at the top. The pope and his officialdom at Rome supervised the activities of scores of bishops and archbishops throughout Europe, who, in turn, oversaw thousands of priests and their parishes. Numerous religious orders of monks, nuns, and friars scattered throughout Europe often stood outside the structure of the provinces of the church known as diocese. Over the centuries, these orders had amassed significant wealth, and many enjoyed exemptions from the control of Europe’s bishops and archbishops. Most owed allegiance to their order, which the papacy ultimately supervised; that tie could be tenuous when hundreds of miles separated an abbey or a monastery from the church’s capital. The administrative complexities of the Roman Church may have been considerable, but so were the numerous roles the institution fulfilled in society. In the spiritual realm, the church provided a necessary link between God and humankind by virtue of its performance of the sacraments and rituals. For the orthodox, there was no salvation outside the church. In the political realm, the institution was an international force that jealously maintained its power against the encroachment of kings and princes. And locally, the church performed numerous practical functions in society. It administered an effective and sophisticated judicial system to which, in theory, all Europeans could bring cases. As Europe’s largest landholder, it was a financial powerhouse, levying taxes and collecting revenues that were the envy of many princes. Its monasteries and convents produced rich storehouses of agricultural goods that were sometimes sold on the urban market; many of these institutions ran breweries and distilleries that could compete more successfully against private concerns because of the church’s widespread exemption from local taxation. And finally, religious orders like the Carthusians and the Cistercians were important breeders of sheep and livestock who influenced the international market in wool.


Its worldly wealth and power, though, subjected the church to criticism. Little evidence exists to suggest that corruption was more widespread within the Renaissance church than it had been in previous centuries, but high-profile crises like the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism made the church more vulnerable to critics. A more general anticlerical spirit, motivated by the hatred of the clergy’s special rights and privileges, grew as well. The corruptions people identified—sexual immorality among the clergy, the holding of multiple offices by clerics, and the selling of dispensations from church law, to name just a few—had long existed. Rising dissatisfaction with these centuries-old problems, though, can be seen in the attacks on the wealth and sexual immorality of the clergy that litter great works of Renaissance literature like Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron or Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These criticisms also came from famous preachers like St. Bernard of Siena (1380-1444) and St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456), who rode a high tide to popularity, in part, by criticizing the immorality of the church. And more generally, an anticlerical spirit rested just below the surface of late-medieval society, where political circumstances might bring it to life. In the frequent peasant revolts that erupted in Europe after the Black Death, hatred of the clergy sometimes boiled over to produce spectacular attacks on priests, bishops, and archbishops. In 1381, for example, English peasants seized and decapitated the archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury who, as England’s Lord Chancellor, fulfilled both important clerical and secular functions. Anticlerical violence seems always to have been most pronounced in those places where, as in the case of Sudbury, clerics exercised both important secular and religious powers, proof that the mingling of worldly and religious power so in evidence within the Renaissance church could be an uneasy mix for Europeans.


For most of the fourteenth century both the possibilities and limitations of papal power were brilliantly displayed, not in Rome, but in the city of Avignon, just inside the southern borders of France. The period in which the papacy ruled from Avignon lasted from 1309 until 1378 and was known even in the fourteenth century as the “Babylonian Captivity,” a phrase that likened the papacy’s relationship to France with Israel’s bondage in Babylon. It was not a very accurate portrayal of the Avignon Papacy. It is true that Pope Clement V (r. 1305-1314) moved there at the instigation of the French king, but the city was not technically a French possession. It belonged to the kingdom of Naples, and the church purchased it before setting up its capital there. The town did lie within France’s boundaries, but the king was still several hundred miles to the north, unable to exert day-to-day influence over church administration. Instead France’s dominance over the church was more subtle. All seven of the Avignon popes were French, and the College of Cardinals—the body charged with electing the pope—had a large contingent of Frenchmen, too. Still, except for the first Avignon pope, Clement V, the pontiffs elected in the city were bright and energetic, and they administered the church more effectively than it had been for some time. During this period the cost of papal government steadily rose. To create sufficient revenue to meet their expenses, the popes moved to centralize their administration of the church and to identify new sources of revenue. The papacy, for instance, reclaimed its rights of reservation, that is, the power to appoint clerics to key offices in the church. While vacant, the income from these offices flowed to the popes, and the papacy began to levy fees on those who wished to be appointed to them. To manage this system, a large bureaucracy developed in Avignon, and bribes became commonplace. For these reasons, Avignon became synonymous in the minds of Europe’s rulers with corruption. Such feelings produced measures like the Statutes of Provisors (1351) in England, an act of Parliament that prohibited the pope from appointing non-English subjects to church offices. At Avignon, the church’s dependence on revenues from the sale of indulgences grew, too. All these innovations in papal finance and government caused a decline in papal prestige and a growing distaste for the rising flow of wealth into the church’s coffers.

The Great Schism

These problems paled in comparison to the dilemmas that arose after the papacy’s return to Rome in 1378. Soon after he re-established papal government in the city, Pope Gregory XI died, and the College of Cardinals elected an Italian to assume the office as Urban VI. Within months, Urban’s attacks on the worldliness and corruption of the church’s cardinals had alienated many, and a faction of the college met to depose him. In his place they elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva who took the name Clement VII. Urban, for his part, refused to resign, and instead he excommunicated the rebel cardinals and their pope. He created a number of new, mostly Italian cardinals to replace them. Clement VII now refused to step down, and he left Rome for Avignon, where he and the majority of the original College of Cardinals set up a rival papal court. For almost forty years this Great Schism prevailed in the European church, with international politics determining which pope a specific nation recognized. England, Ireland, parts of Germany, and most of Italy remained loyal to the pope at Rome, while France, Castile, Aragon, Portugal, and Scotland recognized Avignon. The resulting confusion eroded the notion of the church as the sacred instrument of God on earth. Instead more and more people saw the church as a human institution. The schism thus helped to create an audience for the teachings of figures like John Wycliffe in England and John Huss in Bohemia, both of whom attacked the wealth and secular power of the church and instead insisted that Rome would do better to concentrate on its spiritual mission.


The way out of the crisis of the Great Schism gradually appeared in the form of a new political theory that developed within the church known as conciliarism. The conciliarists taught that the decisions of a church council could override those of the popes. In the past the popes had convened church councils, but neither the Avignon nor the Roman popes could be expected to call a council that might depose them of their office. Thus conciliar theorists at the University of Paris began to make the convincing case that a church council might be convened independently of the pope under extraordinary circumstances. In 1409, representatives of both papal governments and church officials from throughout Europe met in the Italian city of Pisa to consider ways of healing the breach in the church. After deliberating, the council decided that both papal governments were invalid and it called for the resignations of the Avignon and Roman popes. When neither would resign, it declared them antipopes and elected a new pope, Alexander V. For a time both Avignon and Rome held out against the new Pisan pope, and factions throughout Europe supported each of the three papal governments. Thus the Council of Pisa, which had been called to heal the breach, inadvertently worsened the crisis for a time. In 1413, a second council convened at Constance in Germany. There church officials successfully obtained resignations from the Pisan and Roman popes, and deposed the Avignon pope when he refused to resign. They elected Martin V to serve as the indisputable leader of the church, who now enjoyed loyalty from all parts of the church. In the decades that followed, many conciliarists continued to argue that the church needed a permanent resident council to advise and supervise the activities of the pope, an innovation that, had it been established, would have transformed the church into something similar to a constitutional monarchy. Although conciliarists remained powerful in the first half of the fifteenth century, one tenet of their teachings—that church councils were superior to the judgments of the pope—was declared heretical by Pope Pius II in 1460. After that date, conciliarism declined rather rapidly as a challenge to papal authority.


Indulgences were an important feature of the late-medieval church. They had first been used to encourage soldiers to participate in the Crusades, but by the fourteenth century, they were being applied to all kinds of good works in the church. The theological definition of indulgences was subtle. They were not licenses to sin, nor did they release souls automatically from purgatory. They were instead pardons that substituted for penances, those penitential acts assigned by priests at confession. In practice, though, the indulgence’s popularity developed from the growing importance of purgatory in the later Middle Ages. Purgatory was believed to be that realm of the afterlife where Christians would be purged of the unconfessed sins they had committed in life. By the fourteenth century, most Europeans believed that only the saints, those sinless Christians, would go immediately to Heaven after their deaths. Others would have to spend some time in purgatory suffering for their sins. Indulgences substituted for this penance in the afterlife by granting a specific number of days off the time that would be spent in purgatory. There were many ways to attain indulgences. Contributing to church building projects, making pilgrimage to certain shrines, venerating a saint’s relic, or saying certain prayers were just a few of the many good works that Christians could perform to gain access to the indulgence’s pardon. In the fifteenth century the evidence shows that the market in indulgences went into an “inflationary spiral.” At Rome, local church officials lobbied and bribed church officials to secure indulgence letters, which they often sold at home in exchange for mere money payments. The funds indulgences generated became a vital source of revenue, both at Rome and in the church’s provinces. Toward the end of the fifteenth century the market for indulgences expanded once again, when the church began awarding the documents, not only to the living, but also for the benefit of the dead already suffering in purgatory. Certainly, these abuses in the indulgence trade were one of the most glaring ills of the late-medieval church, and they inspired the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther to speak out against the church’s teachings on salvation. But both Protestant and Catholic reformers criticized these glaring abuses. The custom of granting indulgences as pardons would play no role in Protestantism. Among Catholics, though, a reformed notion of indulgences continued to serve as an accompaniment to good works after the Council of Trent.

Renaissance Piety


Despite the political and administrative problems of the church, popular religion witnessed a dramatic surge in the Renaissance. This surge can be seen in the many bequests the laity made to support masses, to found new monasteries and convents, and to build new churches. The authority of the church as an institution that controlled people’s salvation was still widely respected, and late-medieval religion often evidenced a ritualistic flavor. The Mass and the other sacraments were seen as effective forces that aided in the salvation of an individual’s soul. One of the most common priests at the time was the chantrist, who did nothing more than repeat the Mass many times each day for the benefit of people’s salvation. Many people tried to amass as many indulgences as possible, holding fast to the notion that salvation could be accomplished through the routine channels the church provided. At the same time a deeper kind of piety was intensifying that pointed to the growth of more internal religious beliefs. Confraternities increased dramatically in importance among the laity. These brotherhoods and sisterhoods practiced many of the same prayers and rituals that had long been used in Europe’s monasteries, but, in addition, they dedicated themselves to pious works that were practical and beneficial to society. They fed the poor, tended the sick, and even accompanied the condemned to the gallows. This search for a practical piety found expression, too, in the numerous endowments the laity made to support preachers in Europe’s towns. And the new subjective religious spirit can be seen in the great surge in the writing and circulation of devotional literature. New classics appeared at the time, works like Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ or the Books on the Art of Dying that would help Christian readers shape their devotion, not only in the Renaissance, but in the centuries that followed. Finally, these sensibilities were displayed as well in the rising attention Europe’s scholars and lay people gave to the scriptures.


The system of the seven sacraments had grown up in Europe during the medieval centuries, and it remained a source of Christian discipline and consolation during the Renaissance. The seven sacraments were Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Orders, Marriage, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, and Last Rites or Extreme Unction. The church taught that the sacraments were outward signs that brought grace to the faithful and thus they were the most important rituals of the church. The sacraments were not mere symbols, but acts that helped heal a human being’s sinful nature. The system of sacraments, moreover, functioned to discipline Christians. The sacraments could be withheld through excommunication, and since people feared death without Penance and Last Rites, the sacramental system functioned as a force of control. Every Christian did not receive all the sacraments during his or her life. Those who married, for instance, generally could not take Holy Orders, which required sexual abstinence. Everyone, though, participated in Penance and the Eucharist at least once each year. For most lay people, they did so in the days and weeks immediately preceding Easter, giving rise to the custom of “Easter duties.” The Eucharist occurred in the final part of the Mass, and it was the most ritually potent event within the Renaissance church. Most people accepted the church’s doctrine of transubstantiation—that is, that the bread and wine used in the sacrament become the actual body and blood of Christ through the priest’s consecration. The popularity of the Eucharist in the later Middle Ages can be seen in the spread of the Feast of Corpus Christi throughout Europe. Corpus Christi was a eucharistic celebration that occurred in late spring, and it became one of the liturgical year’s most important festivals. In England and France especially, the celebration of Corpus Christi included impressive processions and dramatic play cycles that sometimes lasted over several days. The Eucharist was also displayed in every church, often in elaborately carved or silver monstrances which could be quite large. At the end of the fifteenth century, for example, the late Gothic sculptor Adam Krafft (1455-1509) created a soaring 64-foot tall stone tabernacle for the Church of St. Lawrence in Nuremberg, a monument that became a source of local civic pride.

Importance of Rituals

Beyond the sacraments, a rich life of rituals and observances was an important feature of Renaissance religion. Fasting, for example, was a common sign of religious devotion, but also a requirement imposed by the church at particular times. Fasting was prescribed for the 40 days of Lent, for the four weeks of Advent before Christmas, and on a number of other days throughout the year. At these times the eating of all animal products and sexual intercourse were forbidden. Prolonged fasts were also considered signs of saintliness. For women saints, in particular, fasting had a special significance. Long-standing religious teachings condemned women as “daughters of Eve,” and the view that women were more highly sexed than men also ran through much medical and scientific literature in circulation in the Renaissance. While the biographies of Renaissance male saints sometimes stressed their asceticism, the ability to survive without food was usually a necessary precondition for becoming a female saint. The ability to fast demonstrated a woman’s victory over her body, that she had successfully conquered her flesh. For most Christians, though, the church stressed that fasting should be practiced in moderation, as but one part of a program of self-denial and discipline. Most people were more eager to celebrate the numerous “feast days” that occurred throughout the church’s calendar than they were to fast. Although the precise dates and reasons for these holidays differed from place to place, feast days were usually times for parish festivals, for processions, and for other events that helped to relieve the monotony of daily life. Many religious rituals also occurred outside the church, and often without the participation of the clergy. People practiced a lush variety of prayers, benedictions, and ceremonies at the time and saw ritual as possessing an almost magical effectiveness to protect one’s self or family. Women in childbirth, for example, relied on talismans, charms, and prayers to ensure their safety. Farmers used similar measures to try to increase their yields of livestock and crops. Specific prayers existed for almost any circumstance. Some were believed to be effective in winning lawsuits, others for curing nosebleeds, and still others for avoiding sudden death, robbery, or specific illnesses. The church had long condemned this attitude toward prayer as magic, but it survived nonetheless.


Society’s love of ritual and the church’s desire to promote the veneration of the saints combined to inspire a great age of pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages. In 1300 the papacy had initiated the practice of the Roman Jubilee, a year-long religious festival held in the church’s capital. Journeys to Palestine had become unfeasible for most Europeans because of the spread of Islamic power in the Western Mediterranean. Now Rome became Europe’s undisputed pilgrimage capital, and the papacy supported its development by awarding rich indulgences to those who made the journey. During the second Jubilee held in the city during 1350, more than a million Europeans journeyed there, their journeys inspired by indulgences and the desire to demonstrate their devotion to God in the wake of the Black Death that had recently afflicted Europe. Individuals and communities often relied on pilgrimage in this way to secure the saints’ aid in solving their problems. Church teaching stressed that the saints could not perform miracles, but they could offer people aid by interceding with God, encouraging him to grant a miracle. If plague threatened a town, civic leaders often promoted communal pilgrimages to try to obtain the saints’ aid. Those suffering from disease, or in fear of dying, promised to make journeys to local shrines, too. By the fourteenth century, thousands of pilgrimage shrines dotted the European landscape, and new shrines added to their number constantly. Some were quite small, but Europe also had many impressive centers for long-distance pilgrimage. Like Rome, these places drew the faithful from throughout the continent. In Spain, Santiago di Compostella, a shrine possessing the relics of St. James, drew pilgrims from everywhere in Europe, as did Canterbury in England, and Mont St. Michel in France. The pilgrimage industry brought with it the rich donations of Europe’s faithful, and by the fifteenth century, local church leaders and civic boosters were often anxious to see the development of shrines within their provinces. In Germany, places like Wilsnack, Grimmental, and Regensburg were enthusiastically advertised to draw as many pilgrims as possible. In Regensburg, for example, the shrine developed in the wake of miracle reports during 1519, and during the next two years, it had drawn several hundred thousand pilgrims. But the excitement could fade just as quickly as it arose. By 1522, Regensburg had largely been forgotten. This enthusiasm inspired criticism from many in the church and state who feared these spontaneous outbursts of religiosity. Crowds might turn dangerous, as at Niklashausen in Germany during 1476. Pilgrims traveled to a shrine there because of the anticlerical sermons of an itinerant preacher. When the church prohibited their pilgrimage, the faithful revolted, marching on the local bishop’s palace and staging riots along the way. Other critics of late-medieval pilgrimage attacked it as nothing more than a ploy to raise money. Humanists like Desiderius Erasmus poked fun at the popular beliefs in the saints. In his short dialogue, A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake, Erasmus used bitter satire to mock those who believed their problems could be solved merely by journeying to a saint’s relic. It would be better, he advised, for people to stay at home, say their prayers, and do their work.

Modern Devotion

Erasmus’s pragmatic attitude had been shaped by a different set of religious values, values that had been formed by his education and early upbringing within the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren practiced a disciplined religious life that was known as the Modern Devotion. The movement’s founder, Gerd Groote, had been destined for a brilliant career in the church when, in 1370, he renounced his worldly ambitions and entered a monastery. After several years spent as a monk, Groote embarked on a preaching career that lasted until his death in 1384. During this time he turned over his house and belongings to a group of laywomen, who became known as the Sisters of the Common Life. These women took no formal religious vows, nor did they wear any special dress. They were free to leave the group when they wished, but while serving as members of the community they were to share their possessions. Within a short time, a male wing of the movement, the Brothers of the Common Life, had developed, and during the next century, scores of houses of the Brothers and Sisters had been founded in the Netherlands and Germany. The life of the Brothers and Sisters stressed prayer and introspection. They frequently expressed distaste for the ritualistic formalism they saw in the church, but they did not reject Catholic teachings. They insisted instead that the sacraments and other rituals of the church must be practiced with a spirit of fervent internal devotion. To support themselves, many of the Brothers undertook scribal work, copying manuscripts for scholars. Others ran boarding schools that provided their students with an elementary knowledge of Latin and the Christian classics. The Sisters, on the other hand, served as nurses and ran hospitals. Church leaders had long distrusted lay movements like the Brothers and the Sisters because they feared they might teach heresy. Over time, though, this group ingratiated itself with the church leadership in most of the places in which it founded communities, in part because the Brothers and Sisters resembled other orders of monks and nuns. By the late fifteenth century, the number of their lay members had shrunk as Brothers and Sisters took permanent vows and followed disciplines similar to other religious orders. Even at this time, though, the Brothers continued to exert an influence over learning and scholarship in Northern Europe through their primary schools. From their scribal endeavors, many of the Brothers of the Common Life were also aware of the inaccuracies that had crept into manuscripts over the centuries. With the coming of the Renaissance to Northern Europe in the late fifteenth century, the schools of the Brothers of the Common Life helped to disseminate knowledge of the textual studies of the Italian humanists in their schools. The largest of these institutions at Deventer had more than 2,000 students in 1500, and counted among its pupils Desiderius Erasmus. Elsewhere the alumni of the Brethren of the Common Life schools were just as distinguished, and included such figures as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

The Imitation of Christ

The teachings of the Modern Devotion were broad and eclectic, despite a firmly orthodox flavor. One work, The Imitation of Christ, became particularly important in spreading the ideas of the movement. The work has long been ascribed to Thomas à Kempis, a member of a religious house associated with the New Devotion, but evidence to prove his authorship is slight. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life enjoyed works like the Imitation which was essentially a collection of adages, proverbs, and spiritual admonitions drawn and paraphrased from other spiritual writings. One phrase in the work, though, manages to sum up much of its teaching: “It is better to feel sorrow than it is to understand it.” When he used the word “understand,” the author of the Imitation had in mind the intense intellectual efforts that theologians used to understand sorrow as a necessary part of the sacrament of Penance. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life believed that these attempts to comprehend how the sacraments worked were meaningless. The sacraments, they taught, were not mere exercises in ritual; they needed to be combined with an internal change of heart. As such, the Imitation was typical of a rising strain of piety in the later Middle Ages which advocated a greater internalization of religious experience. The immediate impact of the work is evident from the more than 700 handwritten manuscripts that survive from the fifteenth century. The Imitation was also printed in 1472, and by the end of the century, more than 85 printed editions were in circulation. During the sixteenth century another 200 printings appeared. Eventually, the Imitation had translations in all European languages, and from its almost unchallenged vantage point as a manual of the Christian life, it continued to inspire the religious devotion of both Catholics and Protestants until modern times. Its effect can be seen on figures as diverse as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, and John Wesley.

The Art of Dying

The fifteenth century witnessed a number of new theological handbooks and practical guidebooks that treated the subject of death. The surge in the production of texts on these themes was part of a more general preoccupation with death in the later Middle Ages. Preparation for death, concentration on its inevitability, and attention to the final hours of those who were dying had long been important themes in the Christian religion. Since the early church, in other words, Christians had written numerous texts about the final moments of life and how the Christian should approach that time. The grim realities of living in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries heightened people’s fascination with these themes. Many of the new works used the word “art” in their titles. By art, their writers had in mind “skill.” The authors of these books treating the art of dying intended to teach the skills that the still-healthy would need as they approached their final hours. The theologian Jean Gerson (1363-1429) wrote the first of these works entitled On the Art of Dying. Another twenty similar theological handbooks appeared on the subject during the fifteenth century. The primary aim of Gerson’s work was to keep sick and dying people confirmed in their faith in the period between their last Confession and the moment of death. These moments were particularly important in the medieval mind. Sins committed after a person’s final Confession would need to be atoned for in purgatory. More serious mortal sins, like denying one’s religion or cursing God, would result in one’s damnation. Gerson tried to provide his readers with prayers, admonitions, and meditations that would keep the Christian true to his religion on his deathbed. Other theologians imitated his success, but the genre of books treating the art of dying also included two works intended for a popular readership. The first of these was a text version and it was more widely circulated. The second was an illustrated handbook that consisted of a series of pictures outlining the stages the dying would experience before their last breath. More than 300 handwritten manuscripts of both works still survive, and 75 printed editions appeared in Latin and other European languages between 1468 and the end of the fifteenth century. Both works recommended that family members and friends accompany the dying on their deathbeds. This custom had been used in the medieval monastery and it now came to be practiced by laypeople relying on the books of the art of dying for advice. The works gave those gathered at the deathbed tools to help their loved ones avoid the temptations that approaching death might bring. Overall, the tone of these books was not morbid, but cautiously optimistic. Every death, the books taught, is a drama, but armed with the proper tools of the faith, the dying can be committed to the afterlife successfully. The art of dying was one of the most popular religious themes treated in the early press, with scores of editions being printed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Renaissance Mysticism

Mysticism was a form of religious experience that became increasingly popular in the later Middle Ages. Mystics came from many different social classes and educational backgrounds, and they were both male and female. Great variety characterized late-medieval mysticism, making it difficult to generalize about the movement. All mystics attempted to achieve a direct, unmediated union with God, but the methods they relied upon to achieve this relationship differed dramatically. Still, trends can be discerned in the history of mysticism in medieval and Renaissance Europe. By the fourteenth century, European writers wrote more mystical texts than ever before. Laymen and laywomen, too, played roles in mysticism, as they did in other dimensions of late-medieval piety. Finally, mysticism influenced other areas of late-medieval and Renaissance intellectual life. In Italy, the movement affected humanist scholars from Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who studied mystical texts for the insights they offered concerning human nature and its relationship to the Creator. Northern European scholars similarly combed through the mystical heritage. Renaissance humanist Jacques Lefevre D’Etaples (d. 1536) in France and scholastic theologian Martin Luther were just two of the many Northern European intellectuals whose ideas were in part shaped by mystical texts. Although mysticism’s influence stretched to these different spheres of Renaissance life, both the church and society at large were distrustful of mystics. The mystic claimed to have direct knowledge of God, a knowledge that was more personal and subjective than the insights the scriptures and church theology offered. Many mystics experienced visions, and their pronouncements could veer into prophecies that were a challenge to the church and state. As a consequence, church authorities often carefully scrutinized the writings of mystics to see if they conformed to church teaching or if they threatened medieval institutions.

Affective Mysticism

Two broad categories of mystical experience have long been identified in late-medieval Europe, with considerable overlap between the two. The first, known as “affective mysticism,” involved the mystic adopting certain behaviors to try to achieve union with God. Affective mystics desired to conquer their wills as a necessary pre-condition for uniting with God. Many practiced acts of self-denial and subjected their bodies to tortures so that they could triumph over their human needs. Affective mystics described their journey to union with God using metaphors drawn from the writings of monasticism. They treated the mystical union as a marriage, or they pictured Christ as a mother who fed them from His breasts or the wound in His side. One affective mystic, Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), used these metaphors in her Dialogue On Divine Providence, one of the major mystical texts of the later Middle Ages. Catherine was the daughter of a large Sienese family who had spent her youth in conflict with her parents. They disapproved of her desire to become a nun and her extremes of religious devotion. From a young age, Catherine had fasted regularly and subjected her body to regimens of sleep deprivation so that she could spend more time in prayer. Because of her deep feelings of unworthiness, Catherine never became a nun, but instead joined an auxiliary order of laywomen attached to a local Dominican convent. There she performed the most menial of tasks and tended the sick and dying. For much of her life she was said to have lived only on the communion wafer she received each day and pus she drained from those she nursed. Following the first of these episodes of drinking filth Catherine reported a vision of Christ, who came to feed her from the wounds in his side, and from this point forward she developed a rich visionary life. She died at 33 as a consequence of her fasting, but her ability to conquer her human needs and her success in achieving mystical union with Christ gave her a great deal of influence while she was alive. In the many letters she wrote to kings, queens, and popes, she doled out praise and blame. Other women followed a path similar to Catherine’s. St. Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) told of her many visits from Christ in her Revelations, as did Julian of Norwich (1342-c. 1416) in her Revelations of Divine Love. Margery Kempe (1373-1438), a laywoman, recounted her visions in a widely read spiritual autobiography in English. And at the end of the Middle Ages, St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) published her fascinating visionary accounts of purgatory, which reached a large audience. The affective mystical tradition persisted in the sixteenth century, particularly in Spain where St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) informed their readers of their visions through their writings. St. Teresa wrote her autobiographical The Interior Castle in 1577, a book that found a ready audience in both the women of her religious order and members of the Catholic devout. John of the Cross’ The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul were equally popular and provided early-modern Catholics with an orthodox theology of mysticism. John’s writing, in particular, stressed that the Christian’s soul needed to be emptied and purified in order to be filled by the spirit of God. Teresa of Avila’s mysticism, on the other hand, shows less influence from the scholarly and theological traditions; it is instead an often highly personal and emotional account of the visitations she received from God while in prayer.

Speculative Mysticism

A second kind of mystical experience was important in late-medieval Europe. It was less emotional and less ascetic than “affective” mysticism and is sometimes referred to as “speculative” mysticism because of the importance that intellectual issues had for its practitioners. Speculative mysticism flourished in Germany and Northern Europe in the later Middle Ages, and Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327) was among its most important exponents. Many speculative mystics drew upon Neoplatonism in their writings. Neoplatonic thought had allowed Christian theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) to argue that human ideas were dim reflections of universal truths that preexisted in the mind of God. Neoplatonism also stressed that human nature, which had been created in God’s likeness, possessed a spark of divinity. As a consequence, speculative mystics often stressed that mystical union with God was but a return to humankind’s original oneness with God, a teaching that, when overstated by Meister Eckhart, led to the condemnation of his ideas as heretical. Speculative mysticism also found inspiration in the newly discovered works of Pseudo-Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius was actually a sixth-century writer, but he alleged to be Dionysius the Areopagite, the associate of St. Paul spoken of in the New Testament. In his works Pseudo-Dionysius had tried to communicate a special “gnosis,” that is, a secret wisdom he alleged had been given to him by the apostles. This special wisdom, Pseudo-Dionysius argued, surpassed human reason, and thus those mystical writers who relied upon his texts stressed that union with God was an experience that was incomprehensible according to rational, intellectual standards. Besides influencing Meister Eckhart, Dionysian ideas can be seen at work in a number of late-medieval mystical writers. The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous fourteenth-century English mystical text, was among the first to apply these sober insights about the limits of the human intellect to understanding the divine mind. But the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysius continued to have perennial appeal. On Learned Ignorance, a treatise written by the late-medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), went to great lengths to demonstrate the finite limitations of human reason when applied to the infinitude of God. Cusa’s treatise argued that the true mystic needed to cultivate an awareness of the limitations of his own intellect, a first step toward developing a higher knowledge of the divine mind.

Other Traditions

Other mystical texts appeared in late-medieval Europe that cannot neatly be fit into “affective” and “speculative” traditions. The Theologia Germania, or German Theology, a compilation of mystical texts that circulated in Northern Europe in the fifteenth century, shows influences from all the Christian mystical traditions—affective, speculative, monastic, Dionysian, Neoplatonic, and so forth. The publication of that text in 1516 by the German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) granted medieval mysticism renewed life in the early-modern period. It also ensured that mystical ideas would continue to be discussed and debated, not only among Catholics, but among Protestants, too. Mystics were often eclectic, drawing upon a variety of texts, metaphors, and allusions in their quest to express the union with God. These metaphors were adaptable, and could be used not only by other mystics but by nonmystical devotional writers in search of vocabulary and rhetoric to portray the indescribable character of God and the Christian’s relationship to Him.

The Reformation’s Origins


The maturing of Christian humanism in Northern Europe around 1500 preceded the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Like the followers of the Modern Devotion, many Christian humanists criticized the ritualism of religion at the time, and instead argued for the importance of an internal change of heart among Christians (see also Philosophy: Christian Humanism). The humanists also devoted themselves to the study of the classics and ancient languages. One important innovation of fifteenth-century humanism was its perfecting of philological techniques. Philology, the historical study of languages, taught the humanists that the meanings of words used in ancient documents, particularly in the scriptures, had changed over the centuries. One of the most important demonstrations of fifteenth-century philological technique had come from the Italian humanist philosopher Lorenzo Valla. In 1440, Valla had demonstrated that one of the foundations of papal power, the Donation of Constantine, was a forgery. This document had allegedly been written by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and transferred power in the West to the Roman pope. Valla’s detailed examination of the language used in the text demonstrated conclusively that it was a fake written around 800 C.E. Inspired by the example of Renaissance philologists like Valla, the humanists began to study the ancient Classics to revive an accurate ancient knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Nowhere were their insights to produce more profound changes in Christianity than in the corrections they made in the Bible. Until 1500, the most important version of the scriptures used in Europe was the Vulgate, a fourth-century translation of the Greek and Hebrew books of the Bible into Latin by St. Jerome. Humanists began to use their new sophisticated knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to examine this text and they found that it contained numerous inaccuracies. Medieval scribes had also compounded the Vulgate’s problems by miscopying the text. Consequently, humanists undertook a great project to ensure the accuracy of the Bible’s translation. Their new translations into Latin and other European languages produced powerful reassessments in Christian teaching. In 1516, for example, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus published his translation of the New Testament. Corrections Erasmus made in the text undermined traditional church teachings, and Erasmus pointed out that the sacrament of Penance had no clear scriptural foundation. While this Dutch humanist remained a loyal follower of the church, Protestant preachers and theologians made use of his scholarly insights to reform Christian teachings.


The development of the printing press aided the new studies undertaken by humanists in the late fifteenth century, as it promoted the circulation of texts throughout Europe. The printing press, traditionally attributed to the German Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, was a complex development to which many contributed ideas and techniques. The new technology spread quickly throughout Europe after 1450. In the first half-century of its existence, the press largely published editions of the Classics and medieval theology. It helped scholars by providing them with cheaper versions of important works for their libraries. In 1490, Aldus Manutius founded a publishing house in Venice that pioneered the use of italic print. This Aldine press issued many important classical works in Greek editions, and it helped spread the new textual scholarship throughout Europe. Even in 1500, though, some humanists and theologians still desired to circulate their texts in manuscripts copied by scribes because they were more beautiful. Publishers like Aldus Manutius, however, successfully weaned Europe’s scholars away from manuscripts because they produced cheaper books that were as pleasing to the eye and easier to use than handwritten manuscripts. The press, too, helped make the scholarly insights the Renaissance had produced a permanent feature of the intellectual scene as the identical copies of a particular work ensured that a scholar working in England had access to the same authoritative text as one who worked in Italy. The fact that printed books had editions of several hundred to several thousand meant that a text could never be lost again, as many had been in the Middle Ages. In its first decades, then, printing proved to be an invaluable boon to scholarship. But by the early sixteenth century another possibility of the press became evident to people as well: its ability to transmit knowledge quickly. The press allowed the lecture notes of a famous Greek professor in Venice to be printed and sent to Northern Europe within a matter of weeks, and it fostered intellectual debates and controversies as scholarly opponents sparred off with printed defenses of their positions. Protestantism made brilliant use of these possibilities, but it also used the press as a mass medium that could spread ideas throughout society.


Another dispute that helped to shape the early course of the Reformation was the Reuchlin Affair, a controversy that erupted over Hebrew books in Germany after 1506. Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), one of the most distinguished scholars in Renaissance Europe, had spent his early years studying at the universities of Freiburg, Paris, and Basel before turning to study law at Orléans and Poitiers. He made two trips to Italy where he impressed Italian humanists with the depth of his knowledge. Although Reuchlin’s interests were wide-ranging, he applied himself increasingly to the study of Hebrew, and one of his chief achievements was the popularization of the study of Hebrew among humanists in Germany. He published a Hebrew grammar for students in 1506. A few years later Reuchlin became embroiled in controversy with the converted Jew Johann Pfefferkorn, who had received the emperor’s permission to seize and destroy Jewish books. Reuchlin immediately opposed Pfefferkorn’s plan, and advocated that Christians study Hebrew texts for the insights they might offer for their own religion. The debates over these issues lasted more than a decade, with first Pfefferkorn’s position winning the upper hand, then the balance shifting in Reuchlin’s favor, and finally back to Pfefferkorn. Generally, Germany’s Dominican Order and scholastic theologians tended to side with Pfefferkorn in favor of the destruction of Jewish works, while the empire’s humanists supported Reuchlin’s position and condemned Pfefferkorn’s plan as an assault on academic freedom. During the high tide of the controversy around 1515, two of Reuchlin’s humanist supporters, Ulrich von Hutten and Crotus Rubeanus struck a successful blow against Pfefferkorn and his Dominican and scholastic supporters with the publication of their Letters of Obscure Men. This biting and hilarious work berated the intentional “obscurity” of theologians and churchmen and was one of the Renaissance’s most successful satires. In the bitter disputes that resulted, charges leveled at Reuchlin for the biting tracts he had written against Pfefferkorn resulted in his condemnation by the church in 1520.

Indulgence Controversy

The bitter divisions the Reuchlin Affair caused between Germany’s humanists and scholastic theologians helped to shape the responses of Germany’s intellectuals to Martin Luther’s attacks upon the sale of indulgences. The Dominican Order and traditional scholastics tended to oppose his ideas; while many humanists supported them. Martin Luther had assumed the post of professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony in 1516, but his radical ideas did not attract much attention until the following year, when he attacked the sale of indulgences. At this time his attacks on the practice collided with German politics and the church hierarchy. To secure his election as archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg had incurred enormous debts from bribes and fees that he paid to the church’s officials in Rome. To pay these off, he and Pope Leo X came up with a plan to sell a new indulgence in Germany. Leo planned to use his share of the indulgence sales to support the construction of a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which had been demolished in 1506 but not yet rebuilt. During the autumn of 1517 Luther became aware of the unscrupulous methods that the indulgence’s chief salesman, Johann Tetzel, used to boost sales of these letters in Germany. Luther wrote to the archbishop, warning him to keep the indulgence salesmen away from Saxony, and at the same time he prepared his famous 95 Theses against indulgences. Luther may have posted the theses on the door of the university’s church in Wittenberg, an act that has legendary status as the beginning of the Reformation. But that act cannot be definitely established from the surviving documents. Such public postings were a common way to inspire debate in the university among scholars. The sale of indulgences offended Luther for several reasons. First, the techniques of Tetzel and others active throughout Germany suggested that salvation could merely be bought in exchange for money payments. Second, salesmen taught that the indulgence letters could be applied not only to one’s own wrongdoings, but also to those of dead relatives and friends suffering in purgatory. For Luther, salvation was always a personal matter between God and a human being, and thus Luther saw the indulgences as a fraud, a way to dupe innocent men and women out of their hard-earned money.

95 Theses

Luther had probably hoped to discuss his criticisms of the sale of indulgences only among scholars. He sent copies of hisTheses to friends and colleagues elsewhere in Germany, and one of these contacts arranged for their printing without Luther’s permission. During the coming months editions of the work appeared in several cities in Germany. Luther’s attacks on indulgences became controversial, and Johann Tetzel and other German Dominicans called for his condemnation. The archbishop of Mainz referred the case to Rome, and the pope responded by sending an emissary to Germany to discuss the matter with Luther. In several meetings during October 1518, the pope’s ambassador tried unsuccessfully to get Luther to retract his statements. Other initiatives followed, since church leaders wanted desperately to avoid making a martyr of the scholar. Luther, for his part, agreed to take part in a staged debate the following June with the Dominican Johann Eck at Leipzig. In this debate Luther generally defended his ideas skillfully. But at one point in the three-week deliberations, Luther admitted that he admired some of the ideas of the heretic John Huss. This outburst would later be used to condemn the reformer. In this sense Luther emerged partially bruised by the Leipzig experience, although a transcript of the deliberations there were printed and circulated throughout Germany. This printed account expanded Luther’s notoriety throughout Europe. In the wake of the Leipzig debate, Luther became more and more convinced that the problems with the church’s teachings ran deeper than mere clerical corruption and indulgence sales. These problems had developed over centuries and they necessitated a more complete reform of the church. In the months that followed Luther began denying the authority of the pope.

Three Treatises

In spite of his many problems with church authorities, Luther continued in these busy months to work out the many implications of his new ideas. Three of the works he published in 1520 became important manifestoes for the Reformation. In the first, The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther argued that corruption had become so entrenched in the church that it was unrealistic to expect reform to come from the clergy. He appealed instead to the German princes and nobles to take up the task of reforming the church within their lands. This call for state-directed reforms would prove important to the Lutheran cause in subsequent years. Luther was always careful to argue that his ideas and reforms must be adopted through the lawful measures of the states, and Germany’s territorial princes found Luther’s ideas attractive because they sanctioned a state-directed church. The second of the three important 1520 tracts, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, presented a new theology of the sacraments. Luther denied that the sacraments helped in human salvation. He insisted instead that sacraments were signs of promises God had made with humankind and thus they must be clearly commanded in the scriptures. This definition caused Luther to reduce the number of sacraments from seven to two, although he held out the possibility that a reformed Penance might play some role in the church. For Luther, only baptism and the Eucharist had clear scriptural foundations. While Luther’s teaching on baptism remained close to that of the medieval church, his ideas about the Eucharist differed from traditional orthodoxy in two ways. Like John Huss, Luther believed the laity should celebrate communion with both bread and wine, and he denied transubstantiation. Luther taught instead that the body of Christ was present everywhere in the world, and the words of consecration uttered in the communion service brought Christ’s body to the bread. This doctrine became known as consubstantiation. In the third of the treatises, On Christian Liberty, the reformer presented his mature theory concerning salvation. Luther stressed that human beings received justification by faith alone, which was a gift of God’s grace. Since God gave this gift to some and not others, Luther upheld the doctrine of predestination. In order to stress the primary, initiating role that faith played in salvation, Luther went to great lengths in this short work to show that good works were not the cause of a sinner’s justification, but the result. At one point, he even insisted that the experience of justification was similar to a marriage between Christ and a prostitute: “Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious Husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils and supplying her with all His good things.” On Christian Liberty also insisted that those who had been saved in this way had no need for a special category of priests to intercede for them with God; they were, in other words, their own priests. Luther did believe that there was still a need for ministers within the church, but that this office should not be seen as radically separate from the laity. All three treatises were widely published throughout Germany and translated into other European languages. By 1525, more than a quarter of a million copies of these three tracts alone had been printed throughout Europe. Luther had become a bestselling author, and the press had aided the spread of his ideas among the German people.

The Diet of Worms

Certainly, Luther’s dramatic treatment at the hands of imperial and ecclesiastical authorities also helped to create an audience for his work. The church had originally tried to deal with Luther quietly, but by June 1520, the papacy was losing patience, and Leo X issued a bull (an official papal document) condemning 41 of his teachings. The pope gave Luther two months to retract his statements or face excommunication. When Luther received his copy, he staged a bonfire, placing medieval theological works, church laws, and the papal bull on the flames. By the following year the emperor Charles V was anxious to see the entire affair put to rest, and he summoned Luther to an imperial diet (a national parliament) in the city of Worms. Luther had prudently asked for a safe conduct while he attended the meetings. At the diet the emperor and the parliament’s representatives interviewed him twice. When pressed at the end of his second audience to recant his errors, Luther responded with a speech that became famous for its defense of conscience: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason … I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.” Despite his stirring rhetoric, the diet responded by placing Luther under an imperial ban, in effect a death sentence. The decree stipulated, however, that the punishment would not go into effect for another month to allow Luther time for prayer and reflection. This sentence plagued Luther for the rest of his life, since it meant that he could not travel outside Saxony and a few neighboring friendly territories in Germany where he was under the protection of local princes.

The Wartburg

While Luther was on his way back to Wittenberg from Worms, he was “kidnapped” in a plan hatched by his protector Frederick the Wise. Frederick arranged to have Luther taken for safekeeping to the Wartburg Castle. He remained there for over a year, studying, reflecting, and beginning one of his most important works: the translation of the Bible into German. When completed in 1534, Luther’s German Bible was a significant literary milestone. It affected the development of written German over the coming centuries in a way similar to the King James Version of the Bible’s influence over literary English. German writers, just like their English counterparts, pulled phrases, metaphors, and allusions from the scriptures as knowledge of the Bible expanded dramatically among Protestant readers. Medieval translations of the Bible into native European languages had existed, to be sure. But Luther’s program to translate the scriptures into his native German had proceeded from a key principle of his teaching: that the scriptures, and not the teachings of the church, should be the prime foundation of Christianity. Here Luther’s ideas had been shaped in part by the humanists, who had criticized the medieval church for insisting that only trained and skillful theologians could interpret scripture. At this early stage in his career as a reformer, Luther believed that the truths of the scriptures were self-evident. His ideas were similar to Desiderius Erasmus, who had dreamed of a day when farmers would chant the scriptures at their plows and women recite them at their spinning wheels. For Luther, the Word of God would accomplish the job of reforming the church by itself. Events soon demonstrated, though, that not everyone who read the scriptures shared Luther’s interpretation. Even as he was deep in the work of his translation of the Bible in 1522, news reached him that some former associates in Wittenberg had begun teaching ideas that were more radical than his own. Andreas Karlstadt, for example, advocated iconoclasm, that is, the violent destruction of religious art, and Thomas Müntzer hoped to radicalize Saxony’s poor and downtrodden. After Luther’s return to Wittenberg, the events he saw unfolding there helped convince him that clear authority and decisive teaching was necessary to ensure the Reformation’s survival. Although he often insisted that he had no special authority to define the Bible’s meaning, Luther struggled for the remainder of his life to ensure that his interpretation of the Bible prevailed among his evangelical disciples.

Peasants’ War

The theological quarrels that Luther had with Karlstadt and Müntzer, though, soon paled in comparison to the outbreak of revolt among the peasants during 1524. In June of 1524, rebellion broke out among the peasants of the Upper Rhine in southwest Germany. During the year that followed, this revolt became known as the Peasants’ War and spread into central and eastern Germany, affecting Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, Saxony, and Austria. Peasant revolts had grown increasingly common in the Holy Roman Empire during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Fourteen rural rebellions occurred in the half-century between 1450 and 1500, and in the quarter century leading up to the great Peasants’ War of 1524-1525 another eighteen rebellions are recorded. This tradition of peasant rebellion grew out of the great demographic changes occurring in Europe. After the dramatic mortality caused by the Black Death (1347-1351) and the recurrence of the plague in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Europe’s population had fallen off by almost forty percent. It began to grow again after 1450, though, and this increase made agricultural land more expensive and produced inflation. Because land was usually let on long-term leases, Europe’s nobility faced shrinking incomes. To deal with this crisis, many of Germany’s nobles had moved to revive taxes and payments that had long since passed away. They had also begun enclosing lands that had once been commonly owned by village communities. These changes had inspired many of the sporadic revolts that had occurred in the period before the Reformation. The causes of the great Peasants’ War, the largest of these rebellions, were more complex than these previous rural rebellions. The momentous changes in Germany’s economy attracted supporters to the peasants’ movement, not only from the countryside, but from the urban poor and the artisans’ guilds. Radical religious reformers, too, joined it. In March 1525, representatives from these various factions met at Memmingen in Swabia, and produced the “Twelve Articles” as their manifesto. Tens of thousands of copies of the document circulated in the following months. The Articles called for the return of common lands and the abolition of serfdom as well as the new exactions and laws that the nobility had been enforcing in the countryside. They demanded the establishment of biblical preaching and “godly law.” By “godly law,” the Memmingen assembly had in mind the establishment not only of Christian principles in society but a return to the customs that had governed people’s lives before the nobility had begun to exact the new, harsher feudal duties. As the revolt spread, its death toll rose. By April of 1525, Luther feared the Peasants’ War might destroy the developing Reformation in Germany, and he published an Admonition to Peace. That work blamed the nobility for causing the revolt because of their harsh rule, but it also counseled the revolt’s supporters to give up on their rebellion. Luther’s counsel proved futile, and as the revolt continued, he reissued the Admonition, in June 1525, together with a new postscript entitled Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of the Peasantry. Now Luther advised the nobility to put down the rebellion immediately, using all the armed force necessary. Germany’s nobles probably did not need much encouragement. While the precise death toll is unknown, as many as 70,000 to 100,000 peasants may have been slaughtered in the campaign to suppress the rebellion.


The suppression of the Peasants’ War had a major and lasting impact on the Reformation. Luther had taken no direct role in inspiring the rebels, and had always been critical of their violent actions. But the presence of religious reformers like Thomas Müntzer within the movement fed the fears of many that the Reformation would lead to full-scale revolution. For his part, Luther’s denunciations of the peasants helped condemn his Reformation movement to widespread unpopularity among the poorer classes of Germany. Luther and state leaders in Saxony realized that discipline and control were necessary if the Reformation was going to survive. In the wake of the Peasants’ War, a number of measures appeared to ensure that Lutheran teachings were established in an orderly fashion in ways that were sanctioned by the government. Indoctrination of the population in the evangelical doctrines became particularly important to the state, too. State and religious authorities undertook an inspection of the territory’s religious life, investigating the level of religious knowledge among Saxony’s ministers and its laity. Known as a Visitation, this practice became a key vehicle for establishing the Reformation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Investigators were often disheartened with the results of their fieldwork. The first Saxon Visitation revealed widespread ignorance of the Reformation’s teachings in the countryside. As a consequence, Saxony became one of the first territories to require mandatory primary education of the young. To accomplish this, Luther prepared a Small Catechism in 1529 designed to teach evangelical principles to children. Each week parents were required to bring their children to church to receive religious instruction, much of which was accomplished merely by rote memorization. This Lutheran practice of instructing children in doctrine would be widely imitated in both Protestant and Catholic countries in the following generations and would become one of the primary ways in which children learned the substance of religious teachings. The emphasis on mere memorization of religious principles, though, would often make these programs unpopular.

Lutheranism in Germany

The Peasants’ War temporarily slowed the speed with which Luther’s teachings spread throughout Germany. After the revolt Lutheranism competed, too, against the rising popularity of Zwingli’s reform program, particularly in southern Germany’s cities (see also Spread of Protestantism: Zwingli). Eventually, many of Germany’s towns and territories favored Luther’s brand of religious reform over Swiss Reformed Protestantism, in part because of its clear respect for state authority over religion. Within Germany’s Lutheran states, the church became almost a department of the state. Unlike England or France, Germany was not a unified monarchy, but a loose confederation of more than 350 states presided over by an emperor. Politics affected the spread of the Reformation in this loose-knit empire deeply, at times halting the spread of Lutheranism and at other times encouraging it. By the 1540s, a recognizable group of cities and territories known as the Schmalkaldic League had emerged. In 1546, the emperor Charles V defeated this alliance, and introduced a plan to re-catholicize all German territories. The consequences of Charles V’s arbitrary decisions, though, inspired a resurgence of Protestant forces, which defeated the emperor’s armies in 1552. In 1555, both Protestant and Catholic states met at the imperial diet at Augsburg to forge a peace. This Peace of Augsburg recognized Lutheranism as a legal religion, and gave Germany’s princes the power to decide which religion would be practiced within their territories.

The Spread of Protestantism in Northern Europe


Luther’s teachings became the dominant form of Protestant Christianity, not only in Germany, but throughout Scandinavia. In the later Middle Ages, the cultural ties between these two regions, which were linked by trade and similarities in language, had been strong. Scandinavia was sparsely populated, and had only a few universities. Many Scandinavian scholars regularly enrolled in German universities and thus became familiar with the Reformation teachings in the early sixteenth century. When they returned to their homelands, they brought with them knowledge of Luther’s ideas, and encouraged the monarchs of Sweden and Denmark to adopt evangelical reforms. In 1527, the Swedish Parliament voted to break its ties with Rome, and a council held two years later prepared the way for a reform of Sweden’s church. In Denmark the pattern was similar, although the adoption of Lutheranism occurred slightly later. At first, a national parliament meeting at Odense granted recognition to Lutherans, while protecting the rights of Catholics. Denmark’s monarch, though, favored Lutheranism, as did the nobility, who stood to benefit from the crown’s abolition of Catholic monasteries and the sale of their lands. After a brief civil war, Protestantism triumphed in Denmark in 1536, and the king called one of Luther’s closest associates, Johann Bugenhagen, to Denmark to advise him on how to institute Lutheran reforms. These new Evangelical churches, the term Lutherans used to describe their institutions, adopted essentially conservative reforms. They preserved much of the character of medieval Christianity, particularly in worship, while adopting the Reformation’s teachings concerning justification by faith and the authority of the scriptures.


A very different kind of Reformation emerged in Switzerland during the 1520s under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli at Zürich. Zwingli had been born to a wealthy peasant family and had received a thorough education, both in the Christian humanism of figures like Erasmus and in traditional scholastic philosophy (see also Philosophy). Upon his arrival in Zürich in 1519, Zwingli began to preach the gospels in a way that was simple and graceful and which won him many admirers among the local population. During the next few years Zwingli’s sermons encouraged many in the city to demand church reforms. In 1523, the council agreed to allow Zwingli to debate his positions with supporters of the Roman Church. His performance convinced many on the council of the correctness of his positions, and the council began to institute changes in the church, including the abolishment of clerical celibacy and the closing of the town’s monasteries and convents. Zürich used the proceeds from the sale of these properties to fund a community chest that cared for the town’s poor. By 1525, the Mass had been eliminated, and a simple service of communion took its place. To underscore Zwingli’s rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation, he insisted that the town’s churches get rid of their elaborate silver and gold communion services. In their place he substituted simple wooden bowls and cups. This innovation emphasized that Christ’s physical body was not present in communion, and it showed a second key element of Zwingli’s communion teachings: that communion was a symbolic commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. In other words, communion did not confer any special divine grace on those who participated in it. Like Luther, Zwingli denied that the clergy had any special status, although the flavor of many of his church reforms proved to be more radical.

Church and Society

Zwingli’s more radical ideas resulted largely from a different understanding of the Bible. Luther had insisted that the central teaching of the scriptures was salvation by faith, and his aim had always been to call the church back to the preaching of the gospel. While Zwingli accepted salvation by faith, he also believed that the laws and commandments outlined in the Old Testament should be observed in society. As a result, his reform of worship was severe. In place of the Mass, Zwingli introduced church services that emphasized the scriptures. He considered church music and religious art to be violations of the Ten Commandments, and he ordered that the murals in Zürich’s churches be hidden with whitewash. Zwingli looked to the town council to accomplish these reforms, but he also argued that the church must play a key role in reforming society. It is for this reason that his reforms have often been described as theocratic. He taught, in other words, that the church’s ministers should share power with civil government, and that they should exercise this influence not only over spiritual matters but over secular issues as well. In this way Zwingli saw the church as playing a dynamic role in the reform of society, an idea he passed on to John Calvin and the Reformed tradition of Protestantism. Like Luther, Zwingli admitted only two sacraments into his reformed church: baptism and communion. He continued to baptize infants and made few changes in the ritual. But his denial of a physical presence of Christ in the communion ritual separated him from Luther, and caused bitter disagreement between the two figures. In the later 1520s Catholic forces amassed in Switzerland against the Reformation in Zürich, and Zwingli decided to enter into negotiations with Luther in an effort to forge a united front against Catholicism. The two figures’ conflicting notions of communion, though, proved to be a stumbling block, and no agreement was forthcoming in the meetings that occurred between the two parties at Marburg in Germany in 1529. Two years later Zwingli died while leading Zürich’s forces in battle against Catholic armies in Switzerland. Despite his early death Zwingli’s ideas lived on to influence the development of both Anabaptism and Calvinism.


Iconoclasm—that is, the destruction of religious images and statues—had accompanied the Reformation since its earliest days. Luther had disapproved of the iconoclasm that some of his more radical colleagues in Saxony had supported. He had insisted that religious images and sculptures were “matters of indifference” to Christians who possessed faith and he had advocated only clearing away those medieval works of art to which people displayed extravagant worship. Zwingli’s uncompromising attitude towards public religious sculptures and paintings—a view John Calvin would also share—became a central tenet of the Swiss Reformation. At the same time neither Zwingli nor Calvin ever advocated the violent popular attacks on religious art that sometimes erupted in Northern Europe during the sixteenth century. Each stressed that religious art should be done away with in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, the Swiss Reformation’s more extreme teachings about art led to eruptions of iconoclasm from time to time among Zwinglians and Calvinists. An outbreak of iconoclasm in the Swiss city of Basel during 1529 horrified the humanist Erasmus, who decided to pack up and leave town as a result. And the many Calvinist Protestants of France in the second half of the sixteenth century also actively embraced iconoclasm as a technique to denounce Catholicism. During the Wars of Religion that gripped the country from 1562 to 1598, Calvinist iconoclastic episodes often produced riots and the indiscriminate slaughter of Protestants by their Catholic opponents.


This movement takes its name from the “second baptism” that was given to adult Christians as they joined the sect. The Anabaptists practiced this rebaptism as a rite of entry into their community, which they believed was a gathered body of true adult believers. Since ancient times rebaptism had been seen as a heretical practice. To defend themselves against the charge of heresy, Anabaptists argued that infant baptism was not valid because it was unscriptural. In this and other ways, Zwingli’s emphasis on the rigorous observance of the scriptures influenced the Anabaptist’s early leaders. The pattern of simplified Christian worship that had developed in Zwingli’s Zürich also came to be adopted by the Anabaptists. Whereas Zwingli had insisted that the church had an important role to play in the reform of society, however, Anabaptism was an exclusive movement that tried to separate the church from the “abomination of the world.” Only those who had received adult baptism were allowed to take part in the Lord’s Supper and participate in the community’s life. Anabaptist teachings also advocated pacifism, and members were prohibited from taking vows. Each congregation chose its own minister, and members submitted themselves to his discipline. In turn, these groups also supervised the moral behavior of their ministers. The movement outlined these teachings in its first statement of faith, The Schleitheim Confession, a document adopted by Swiss Anabaptist congregations in 1527. Elsewhere, the precise outlines of Anabaptist teaching and organization were somewhat different, although the movement spread very quickly in the 1520s through many parts of Germany and the Netherlands.

Münster Prophets

Wherever the Anabaptists taught the new doctrines, harsh, repressive measures arose to discourage them. One exception was the northern German town of Münster, but the establishment of an Anabaptist state there in 1534 was to have far-reaching implications for the subsequent history of the movement. The so-called Revolution of the Prophets that occurred in Münster helped condemn Anabaptism to continuing widespread unpopularity. In 1533, the Reformation had just been officially established in the town, when one of the city’s preachers, Bernard Rothmann, convinced the council to take in persecuted Anabaptists from the neighboring Netherlands. During 1533, the numbers of Anabaptists at Münster swelled and this encouraged the spread of the religion among the local population. By February 1534, the Anabaptist party seized control of local government, and advised those who were not in agreement with their religious views to leave. Over the next few months, a dictatorship of the Anabaptists emerged, eventually led by one Dutch immigrant, John of Leyden, who tried to establish a godly community through force. The new Münster government was a theocracy, run by the town’s religious leaders that carefully controlled every dimension of the town’s life. They abolished both private property and the circulation of money within the city because neither of those things had played a role in the ancient church. Leyden also demanded compulsory polygamy from his subjects and he justified the practice because of its use among the Old Testament patriarchs. The intensive regulation that Leyden introduced in Münster was soon unpopular among many in the town, and a reign of terror, complete with horrifying public executions, became necessary to keep the populace in line. While all this was transpiring within the town’s walls, a confederation of princes from the surrounding region had joined with the local Catholic bishop of Münster to lay siege to the town. As this siege lengthened, conditions within the city’s walls worsened. The Münster Anabaptists desperately pegged their hopes on the arrival of reinforcements from the Netherlands, but although thousands of Dutch Anabaptists marched on Münster, the military forces in the vicinity crushed them. In June 1535, months after the siege of the town had begun, Münster was retaken and many of its Anabaptists slaughtered. John of Leyden and his associates were tried, displayed in cages for several months, and finally tortured and publicly executed in January 1536. Harsh reprisals against the movement followed the suppression of the Revolution of the Münster Prophets, and persecution of Anabaptists remained the rule almost everywhere in sixteenth-century Europe. Pockets of Anabaptists survived, particularly in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Moravia, but these groups settled down into a life of quiet pacifism. Nowhere were the dramatic events of Münster to be repeated. It was not until the eighteenth century, and the expansion of the British colonies in North America, that Anabaptism was truly able to prosper. In Pennsylvania, in particular, the radical wing of the Reformation found a home that was more congenial than Europe. And in the nineteenth century many of the descendants of the sixteenth-century radical reformers, including Anabaptist offshoots like the Mennonites and the Amish, spread into the American Midwest and the Canadian plains.


The emergence of Calvinism in Geneva was one of the most significant developments in the later Reformation. Calvinism was a form of Reformed Protestantism, the movement whose origins lay in the uncompromising biblical and theocratic views of figures like Ulrich Zwingli. Calvinism takes its name from its leader, John Calvin, a French theologian who settled in Geneva. Like Zwingli and other Reformed Protestants, Calvin was much influenced by the Christian humanism of figures like Desiderius Erasmus (see also Philosophy: Christian Humanism). He also trained as a lawyer, and his written work constantly displayed the keen intelligence and clear argument typical of the best legal minds of the sixteenth century. After 1550, Calvinism grew into a vast international movement; its influence spread out from Geneva to affect the British Isles, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Central and Eastern Europe. By virtue of its disciplined organizational structure and coherent teachings, Calvinism successfully challenged the dominance of the Lutheran Reformation in Northern Europe and it also competed vigorously against a resurgent Catholic Church.


John Calvin had converted to Protestantism in 1533, and soon fled religious persecution in France. He arrived in Geneva in 1536, well aware of the fears that radical religious movements like the Münster Prophets had caused among monarchs and civic leaders. He spent the remainder of his life trying to create a disciplined form of Protestantism to counteract the Reformation’s radical wing. He directed many of his most determined efforts toward spreading his teachings in France, as he trained French-speaking preachers to carry Reformed Protestantism back to his homeland. During his first sojourn in Geneva, Calvin worked closely with his associate William Farel, but local officials expelled both from the town because of their uncompromising attitudes towards religious reform. Calvin and Farel retreated to Strasbourg, a town that under Martin Bucer had also become a center of Reformed Protestant teachings, but in 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva where he remained for the rest of his life. The reformation movement he built in the city attracted converts from throughout Europe, eventually doubling the town’s population. Among its admirers, Geneva became known as the “most perfect school of Christ,” a reference to its role as a training center for Calvinist preachers. Critics of Calvin, however, attacked him for acquiring dictatorial power and sometimes mocked him as “the pope of Geneva.”


Like Zwingli and Luther, Calvin retained only two sacraments: baptism (which was performed in infancy) and the Eucharist. In contrast to the symbolic interpretation Zwingli gave to communion, though, Calvin insisted that Christ’s spirit was present in the sacrament. He went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of this spiritual communion with Christ in the Christian’s life. In Geneva, the Eucharist became the most important ritual of the church. Although Calvin had desired to celebrate the sacrament more frequently, the town’s original reform ordinances had been influenced by Zwingli’s ideas and they stipulated that communion should not occur more than four times each year. For his part, Calvin went to great lengths to increase the importance of the Last Supper in the religious life of Geneva. A time of collective penance and a period of internal reflection preceded each celebration of the Eucharist that underscored communion’s importance in the church and in the Christian’s life.

Majesty of God

Calvin’s teachings also extended and codified many of Luther’s evangelical ideas, but with important shifts in emphasis that resulted in a different kind of Protestantism. In all his writing Calvin went to great lengths to emphasize the majesty of God over everything in His Creation. A huge chasm separated God from sinful humankind, and only God could bridge that gap. From this insight, Calvin stressed predestination more than Luther, who had also taught the doctrine. The notion that God pre-ordains human fates had long existed in Christianity, having been discussed in the works of St. Augustine and other early Christian theologians.

Augustine had taught that a person’s election was a gift of God’s mercy, while the damned were responsible for their own fate because of their sins. By contrast, Calvin outlined a teaching that has sometimes been called “double predestinarian,” because he insisted that God had chosen both the elect and the damned before the Creation of the world. There was nothing a human being could do to influence these judgments. Those whom God had elected would be saved because His grace was irresistible, while eternal punishment awaited as the inescapable fate for those He had chosen to damn. Calvin called predestination the “terrible doctrine,” and he spent comparatively little time writing about it in his works for fear that it might lead his followers to become fatalistic. His emphasis on the majesty of God in all human affairs, though, tended to reinforce the notion that human beings had no control over their destiny.

Visible Saints

Some found Calvin’s emphasis on God’s majesty and predestination distasteful because it denied all free will and any human participation in the process of salvation. At the same time Calvin’s devoted followers found reassurance in these same teachings. Calvin always assured his followers that they could be relatively certain of their election if they were leading good Christian lives, and Calvinists stressed that good works were the visible signs God produced in His saints. Works thus testified to election. But this doctrine of election also bolstered many Calvinists as they defied the authority of the state when its laws and actions contradicted the teachings of the scriptures. Over time, the notion of election spilled over into other areas of Calvinist life. In seventeenth-century Calvinist communities in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and North America, many followers of the religion saw worldly success, especially in the world of commerce, as a sign of God’s favor. In this way the Calvinist notion of election contributed to that complex set of ideas and behaviors that has often been referred to as “the Protestant Work Ethic.”


Calvin’s attitude toward the scriptures also explains some of the differences that developed between Calvinism and Lutheranism. Luther had taught that the primary purpose of the Bible was to reveal God’s gift of salvation by faith, and thus those parts of scripture that treated faith were more important than those that did not. By contrast, Calvin’s attitude toward the Bible was more complex and closer to Zwingli’s. He believed that the scriptures were a record of two covenants or promises God had established with humankind throughout history: law and grace. The church had a duty to ensure the establishment of biblical laws in society; at Geneva, the town’s pastors closely supervised the morality of citizens. Each week a consistory met to hear cases of immorality among the town’s inhabitants. The consistory included all nine of Geneva’s pastors and twelve elders chosen from the town council, and had the power to excommunicate, expel, and even sentence citizens to death for violating the town’s strict moral code. As Calvinism spread beyond Geneva, the consistory was sometimes an appealing feature to local civic leaders and princes as a way to control the morality of their subjects. The consistory could be used as a way to establish greater discipline among citizens. Other monarchs, though, feared the sharing of church and state powers within the consistory as a challenge to their power.


Calvin disseminated his ideas and reforms beyond Geneva through his theological masterpiece The Institutes of the Christian Religion. That work was first published in 1536 as a thin French primer on the teachings of Reformation Christianity. Until his death in 1564, Calvin constantly edited and expanded the book, so that by the final edition the Institutes had grown to four books and 80 chapters. The Institutes became Protestantism’s most significant systematic theology, and it was translated into a number of European languages. Although the final version of the Institutes was an imposing volume, it was, when compared to Luther’s massive literary output, a relatively compact and coherent statement of faith. Its clear and forceful language, as well as its logical cast, attracted many, particularly those in the growing educated and urbanized classes of Europe’s cities. As a result, Calvinism tended to attract a literate, relatively prosperous and well-educated group of converts.


Violence was often the result of the early confrontations between Calvinism and Catholicism. Calvinism taught that many of the traditional rituals of the Catholic Church were not just the products of wrong thinking, but were sources of evil that needed to be eliminated. Calvinist preachers often stressed the similarities between the idolatries God had vigorously punished in the Old Testament and those practiced by sixteenth-century Catholics. Many Calvinists believed that tolerating these modern idolatries would result in divine punishment, and so they staged episodes of iconoclastic destruction upon religious images, relics, and other Catholic objects. Calvinists often timed these demonstrations to occur on particularly important Catholic holidays. They sometimes subjected the Catholic host to mock tortures before destroying it. In this way they hoped to demonstrate to their opponents that Catholicism’s ritual objects were merely physical things that could not aid in a person’s salvation. Catholics responded with violent counterattacks, and deadly riots often erupted. In the second half of the sixteenth century religious violence between Catholics and Calvinists, particularly in France and the Netherlands, was a frequent threat to public order and claimed many lives. Between 1562 and 1598 civil war raged in France over the question of what would be the state religion. During this time there were many battles between rival noble armies and the forces of the crown. But sporadic outbursts of street fighting and rioting, similar to modern Northern Ireland or Lebanon, occurred throughout the period, too. In the series of massacres that occurred around St. Bartholomew’s Day in the late summer of 1572 as many as 5,000, mostly Calvinist French, may have been slaughtered. In 1598, the royal pronouncements of the Edict of Nantes helped to end this violence. The Edict granted Calvinists a limited degree of religious toleration in France, allowing them to fortify themselves for protection within certain French cities. Calvinists were forbidden to preach their religion outside these cities. The solution of the Edict of Nantes survived until 1685 when Louis XIV revoked it and forced Calvinists to convert to Catholicism or to leave France.

Spread of Calvinism

Although it had not been officially recognized by the terms of the Peace of Augsburg (the treaty that governed religion in Germany), Calvinism spread in the German Empire in the later sixteenth century as several German princes decided to adopt the religion in their territories. Reformed Christianity’s emphasis on moral discipline was attractive to these rulers, but sometimes proved less so to their subjects. In several territories, princes abandoned their plans to convert their territories to Calvinism, as their subjects seemed by now to prefer Lutheranism to the new practices. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, German Calvinist and Lutheran theologians also engaged in bitter polemical disputes with one another. These controversies marred relationships between the two religions, and inadvertently aided the resurgence of Catholicism as Roman Catholic missionaries were quick to contrast the unity of their church’s truth against the disunity of Protestants. Despite the growing tensions in Germany between these three religious camps—Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic—religious war did not occur in Germany until 1618, when the Thirty Years’ War broke out in the country. The conclusion of that conflict recognized Calvinism as a legal religion in Germany, so long as a prince initiated the reforms in his state. The role of Calvinism in the German Empire, though, remained small as compared to Lutheranism and Catholicism. By contrast, Calvinism became the dominant form of Protestantism practiced in the Netherlands, and it played a greater role in Eastern Europe than Lutheranism. In Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, many Lutherans converted to the new religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, but these Eastern European Calvinist churches did not survive the intensive efforts of rulers to re-establish Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Outside continental Europe, Calvinism’s influence was most pronounced in Britain. Through the efforts of John Knox (1505-1572) and other Genevan-influenced reformers, a Calvinist-styled Presbyterian Church prevailed in Scotland, the largest state to adopt the religion officially. Reformed Protestantism also affected the course of the Reformation in England, where Calvinists remained an important religious minority that later became known as Puritans. The migration of Puritans to colonial New England helped establish Calvinism as one of the dominant forms of religion in North America.


In comparison to other parts of Northern Europe, Protestant teaching made slower progress in England during the first half of the sixteenth century. England was a unified monarchy with stronger central authority than other states, and during the early 1520s King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) made his opposition to the teachings of Martin Luther clear. By the late 1520s, though, Henry faced a crisis. His marriage to the aging Catherine of Aragon had produced only one child, Princess Mary, and the rights of women to succeed to the throne in England had not been officially established. Henry began to lobby Rome for a divorce, but because of Catherine of Aragon’s powerful dynastic connections as a Spanish princess, Rome prevented the dissolution of the marriage. In 1533, Henry asked Parliament to approve a decree severing England’s ties with Rome and naming him as supreme head of the church in England. The decree’s approval allowed the archbishop of Canterbury to hear and grant the divorce. By this time, though, Henry had already married his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Some of Henry’s ministers, especially his Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, favored the introduction of moderate Protestant reforms in the wake of the divorce controversy. Despite Henry’s unwavering support of traditional doctrine, he granted Cromwell the power to begin dissolving England’s monasteries and convents in 1536. At first the king’s minister proceeded only against the smallest houses in the kingdom, but in 1539, he convinced Henry to abolish all remaining monastic institutions in England. Cromwell ruthlessly arranged the sale of these lands, and through his skillful management he realized an enormous increase in the king’s revenues. Henry continued to pursue traditional religious policies throughout the rest of his life. Upon Henry’s death, his son, Edward VI (r. 1547-1553), was too young to rule without a regent, and his advisers favored the introduction of greater religious reforms. Edward’s archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, invited Protestant theologians from Germany and Switzerland to England. The influx of these Protestant preachers from the continent soon bore fruit in 1549 with the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer, a book that prescribed English-language services in the Church of England. In 1552, a second edition of the book included a celebration of the Eucharist along the severe lines prescribed by Ulrich Zwingli. But Edward VI was to die a year later, and his Catholic sister, Mary, took the book out of circulation upon her succession to the throne. Mary set herself to the task of undoing England’s tenuous Protestant reforms and to re-establishing the Catholic Church. At first she proceeded slowly, but with the accession of the anti-Protestant pope Paul IV she pursued more vigorous efforts to rid England of Protestants. During the final years of her reign more than 300 Protestants were put to death, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Even more Protestants fled to the continent, particularly to Geneva, where they immersed themselves in the teachings of Calvinism. Eventually, they returned to England to demand more extensive reforms in the church.

Elizabeth I

Mary died childless in 1558, and so her Protestant sister Elizabeth now ascended the throne. Elizabeth’s accession boded well for those who had been exiled by the intolerant Catholic measures of “Bloody Mary.” The Marian exiles that returned to England in the first years of Elizabeth’s reign brought with them the desire to purify the Church of England of its Roman teachings and rituals. For her part, though, Elizabeth I was always a moderate, and the religious settlement she crafted for England was to be a middle path between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism. While Elizabeth’s international policies favored Protestant states in Northern Europe, the revised Book of Common Prayer authorized for use during her reign was vaguely worded, and many of the Protestant innovations that had been included in her brother Edward’s prayer book were now removed. Elizabeth’s middle-of-the-road religious settlement pleased the majority of the English population, and the policy lasted throughout her reign. Fervent Catholics and Puritans—as English Calvinists had come to be known—were less enthusiastic about the state’s religious policies. Through the skillful use of politics, Elizabeth forestalled Puritan demands for greater reform in the English church. Her record with Catholics, though, was not so happy. Fearing that her Catholic subjects might participate in political intrigues and plots to depose her, Elizabeth secured the passage of a loyalty oath from Parliament. Those who refused to recognize her power over the English church could be tried for treason. About 200 of these English recusants (those who refused to swear loyalty to the queen) were put to death during Elizabeth’s reign. Despite the climate of persecution, English Catholicism survived to be practiced as a largely underground movement by a small minority of the population.

The Council of Trent

Calls for a Council

Political disunity within Germany, the spread of printing, long-standing anti-clericalism, and international political rivalries had all aided the rise of Protestantism in Northern Europe. Initially, the Roman Church’s response to the movement had been to condemn outright the teachings of Luther and the Protestant reformers who followed him. As the Reformation expanded, both geographically and numerically, these prohibitions proved insufficient. Many began to call for a church council to address the issues Protestantism had raised and to deal with long-standing corruption in the church. There were a number of moderate leaders in the Roman Church during these years that clearly recognized the need for reform, both in the church’s administration and its teachings. Liberal Catholic humanists, influenced by figures like Erasmus, often shared many beliefs with Protestants. But the papacy resisted their calls for a council for almost two decades. Conditioned by the history of conciliarism in the later Middle Ages, the popes feared councils as a threat to their authority. They preferred instead to try to negotiate with Protestants in the hopes that they could heal the rifts developing in Christendom, or at the very least, paper over some of the divisions with broad, vaguely-worded statements. There were several such efforts, but the most famous occurred in the German city of Regensburg during 1541. Pope Paul III sent the reform-minded Cardinal Gasparo Contarini to serve as his delegate at the meetings. Luther, who was prevented from traveling to Regensburg because of the imperial sentence pronounced upon him in 1521, sent his closest associate Philip Melanchthon as his representative. The delegates at Regensburg reached agreement over many key issues, but the theology of the Eucharist proved to be a stumbling block. Their meetings broke off without resolving the crisis in the church. During the next few years, though, Pope Paul III grew more confident of his abilities to control a council, and in 1545 he convened a meeting at Trent, a town on the border of Northern Italy just inside lands controlled by the German emperor Charles V. Protestant leaders were invited to attend the meetings, although they were not allowed to speak at them. The debilitating effects of the previous 25 years had by this time dampened enthusiasm for the long-awaited council. Only 35 bishops and archbishops turned up for the first session, and these came mostly from Italy.

The Debates of Trent

The number of bishops and archbishops in attendance eventually grew, although Trent’s delegation still continued to be dominated by its Italian members. It took almost two decades for the delegates to complete their work, although the council did not meet continuously. A series of sessions occurred during the years 1545-1547, 1551-1552 and 1561-1563. The first sessions of Trent discussed Protestant teachings concerning salvation, and after much debate, the position the delegates formulated denied the Reformation’s principle of justification by faith. The Council’s statements asserted the traditional medieval doctrine of free will: human beings were free to accept or reject God’s grace, and both faith and human works were necessary for salvation. During the next block of meetings in 1551-1552, the council debated the role of the scriptures in the church and they denied the Protestant teaching of the primary authority of the Bible. Instead they asserted the ancient principle that the church’s tradition and scriptures were two equal sources of authority. This teaching ensured that the Roman Church would possess the authority to interpret scripture and to define what views would be considered orthodox. The final meetings of the Council during 1561-1563 had far-reaching implications for the development of church discipline. Here the Council strengthened the powers of bishops to oversee local monasteries and the parish clergy. It reinforced older prohibitions against holding multiple offices in the church and stipulated that those who held offices should be resident in the place from which they received their income. Among the more enlightened of the requirements that Trent formulated was the mandate that each bishop should establish a seminary within his diocese for the training of priests. Although it would take many years for these seminaries to be established everywhere in Europe, this requirement ensured that in the future the Catholic clergy would be trained to certain minimal standards of religious knowledge.

Negative Tone

The Council of Trent had been called with the expectation that it might heal the developing rift between Protestants and Catholics. Most of Trent’s decrees, though, were essentially negative condemnations of Protestantism, and thus the Council helped to widen the gap between the groups. The positions adopted at Trent were often expressed in ways that made the Catholic Church’s teachings as distinct from Protestant positions as possible. The Council ignored the moderate Catholic humanism of figures like Erasmus in favor of theological teachings drawn from the more distant past. The church leaders assembled at Trent adopted many positions from the scholastic theologians, especially those of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275). From the Council of Trent onward, Aquinas’ teachings were seen more and more as the foundation of Catholic orthodox theology.


The conservatism that was developing at Trent and more generally in the hierarchy of the church in these years helped inspire the term “Counter-Reformation,” a phrase that calls attention to the essentially reactionary character of many reforms in the church. This growing conservatism can be seen in the actions of the popes who were elected at the time. Perhaps none was so determined a counter-reformer as Paul IV (r. 1555-1559). During his short period as pope, he tried to make Rome into a model Catholic city, adopting many of the same moral reforms that had already been used by Protestants in places like Geneva. Paul outlawed gaming and dancing, banished Rome’s prostitutes, and placed severe restrictions on the activities of the city’s Jews. He became best known for one innovation that would shape Catholic life for centuries to come: the Index of Prohibited Books. He charged the administrators of the index with compiling a list of works that were believed to be subversive to Catholic truth. The list was to be made available to Catholics so that they could know what works were forbidden. The index came to include many works written by Lutherans and Calvinists, but also by moderate Catholic reformers like Erasmus. Paul encouraged Europe’s Catholic rulers to enforce the index in their states and to strengthen their efforts to punish Protestants as heretics. Not all Catholic monarchs pursued the harsh counter-reforming campaign he and his successors advocated, but the most fervent did. In Catholic Bavaria, a territory in the German Empire, the duke instructed his officials to conduct house searches and regular inspections of the territories’ booksellers for prohibited Protestant books. To try to re-establish Catholic orthodoxy, Bavaria’s dukes also required their subjects to attend Mass and confession regularly, and they ensured compliance with an ingenuous system. Priests gave out certificates to their parishioners at Mass, and each year, subjects had to present these proofs of attendance when they paid their state taxes. Those who failed to attend could be fined. Harsh and repressive measures like these became common in those states where staunch Catholic rulers enforced the uniform beliefs that a counter-reforming church demanded.

Catholic Reformation

These measures, though, were only a part of the revival that occurred within the Catholic Church in the early-modern period. Many reform movements had also grown up within Catholicism in the years prior to the Protestant Reformation, and for this reason, most historians prefer to use the term “Catholic Reformation” to describe the church’s revival. The phrase calls attention to the fact that not all the reforms that appeared in these years were inspired by the battle against Protestantism. Many developments had occurred independent of those controversies. Of the many reforming groups within the church that existed prior to the Reformation, the Oratory of Divine Love was the most famous. The founders of the Oratory of Divine Love had been influenced by the example of Catherine Adorno (1447-1510), who would later be canonized as St. Catherine of Genoa. Although married, Catherine renounced her family’s wealth and lived a celibate life in service to Genoa’s poor. She drew around her a circle of devoted admirers, who spread her message of penance and good works through the foundation of the Oratory. The confraternity soon spread to other Italian cities, including Rome. There it shaped the thinking of some of the church’s most important figures, including Pope Paul IV; Gaetano da Thiene, the founder of the Theatines; and Gasparo Contarini, the papal representative who negotiated with Protestants at Regensburg.

New Orders

In the first half of the sixteenth century a number of new religious orders appeared in the Roman Church. These included the Theatines founded in 1524, the Capuchins (1528), the Ursulines (1535), and the Jesuits (1540). The Capuchins took their name from the hooded cape (in Italian capuccio) that they wore. Their founder Matteo di Bassi (1495-1552) intended the order to observe the Rule of St. Francis in a strict, literal fashion; members devoted themselves to prayer and preaching and a strict adherence to Franciscan poverty. By contrast, the Ursulines’ founder, Angela Merici (d. 1540), envisioned that her order of religious women would take vows of perpetual virginity but continue to wear normal clothes and live with their families. The Ursuline was to devote herself to the education of young girls. Eventually, though, the long-standing distrust of unsupervised groups of laywomen led the Ursulines to develop their own convents, from which they ran schools for girls.


The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits as they came to be known, were by far the most important order to appear in this early stage of the Catholic Reformation. Their founder, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), exercised a profound influence on Catholic spirituality in the early-modern period, particularly through the widespread diffusion of his classic devotional work The Spiritual Exercises. He originally wrote the work as a diary of his own quest for spiritual perfection, but he adapted it for his followers’ use. It relied on a technique of mental prayer that Loyola called “meditation.” The Jesuits who first practiced the Exercises were to keep certain prescribed images from the life of Christ before their eyes. By undertaking these meditations over the course of thirty days, the Jesuits acquired the mental tools they needed to avoid sin. While intended originally for Loyola’s followers, the Spiritual Exercises eventually became a form of retreat that many members of the Catholic devout practiced in the early-modern period. The practitioners of these devotions thus held ideas that were very different from Protestants, who placed great stress on humankind’s wickedness and helplessness outside of God’s aid. These devoted Catholics, on the other hand, believed that sin could be conquered through a combination of human effort and God’s grace.

Jesuits as Catholic Reformers

Besides their role in fostering a deepened Catholic piety, the Jesuits played a major part in shaping the resurgence of the Roman Church. Loyola had been a soldier, and he molded his society into a military-style organization that culminated in the office of the society’s Order General. Local communities of Jesuits did not have the customary rights of religious orders to choose their leader; instead the Order General appointed their superiors. Loyola, moreover, envisioned the society as a highly mobile force that could be deployed to establish schools, to preach and conduct missionary work, and to combat Protestant influences wherever and whenever the church required. The Jesuits had very stringent entrance requirements that included a nine-year probationary period. Despite these requirements, the rapid development of the Society points to its widespread popularity. At the time of Loyola’s death in 1556, the Jesuits numbered more than 1,000; by the end of the century, their numbers had surpassed 5,000. One area in which the Society of Jesus exercised a profound influence was in the establishment of secondary schools for young men. After renouncing his military career and experiencing a religious conversion, Loyola himself had entered the University of Paris, where he had been schooled in the traditions of Renaissance humanism. In 1548, as the Jesuits founded their first secondary school at Messina in Sicily, Loyola chose to adopt a humanistic, rather than scholastic, curriculum. Soon Jesuit schools modeled on Messina opened throughout Europe. By 1600, more than 100 such institutions had been founded in Germany alone, and the schools became one of the primary vehicles through which young men from prominent families acquired a classical education.


The Jesuits were also enthusiastic missionaries, as were many of the orders of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jesuits, though, played a particularly important role in the establishment of seminaries that trained preachers who worked for the re-conversion of Protestants to the Catholic religion. In Germany, more than half the lands that had been won over to Protestantism re-converted to Catholicism by the mid-seventeenth century. In this intensive effort of recatholicization the Jesuits played an important role. The Jesuits performed their work by conducting preaching missions, particularly in the cities where Protestantism was strongest. These missions also aimed to keep Catholics confirmed in their faith. Jesuit success elicited Protestant anger, and prompted numerous polemics against the society. In Germany, where the Jesuits were particularly effective in winning converts, Lutheran preachers often attacked the society as a force of Antichrist. Jesuit missions also took on an international dimension. The Jesuits, together with the other Catholic Reformation orders, helped carry Catholicism to the New World and the Far East. In Spanish and Portuguese South and Central America, Jesuit missionaries shared the mission field with groups of Dominicans, Franciscans, and Capuchins. In India and the Far East, their efforts were at first unchallenged. In 1542, Loyola’s close associate Francis Xavier (1506-1552) arrived in the Portuguese colony of Goa on India’s west coast. He and a group of Jesuits stayed there for three years, planting the seeds of a Catholic Church in the region. In 1545, Xavier moved on to Malacca and in 1549 to Japan. Xavier and his followers communicated frequently by letters with their superiors in Europe, and at home the Jesuits published these communications. These printed “Letters from the Far East” became popular reading for devout Catholics, filled as they were with accounts of conversions and adventures the missionaries had experienced in the East. They became, in other words, highly successful propaganda for Rome’s renewal. By 1582, the Jesuits estimated that they had established 250 churches in Japan and converted more than 200,000 to the Christian faith. The society advertised similar successes in China. While these numbers may be exaggerated, Jesuit conversions were frequently troubling to local non-Catholic populations. In both Japan and China, sporadic persecutions of Christian converts gave way through time to brutal efforts to suppress Christianity. Local rulers feared the foreign cultural influence of Christianity the Jesuits had sowed among their subjects.

Religious Art

Because of their religious teachings, all the Protestant Reformations had favored an aesthetic that drastically reduced, and sometimes eliminated the use of religious art in churches. Of all the forms of Protestantism that developed in the sixteenth century, only Lutheranism retained a prominent place for pictorial images and the plastic arts. The Swiss forms of Protestantism, the Radical Reformers, and the Church of England all moved to curb the use of religious art within the public spaces of churches. The Council of Trent, by contrast, enthusiastically supported the continuing use of religious art, insisting that images provided a necessary way to teach the faithful the truths of the church. As the Roman Church’s officialdom met at Trent, though, they were well aware of problems in the uses of religious art. Throughout Europe, the contemporary style of many artists favored the movement known as Mannerism, which sometimes distorted religious themes or clouded them in images that were so complex that few could understand the Christian message. Thus Trent tried to reform the uses of religious art in the church, entrusting its decrees on the proper uses of religious art to the church’s bishops for enforcement. A key figure in the movement to reform art in the second half of the sixteenth century was Gabriel Paleotti, the bishop of Bologna and a cardinal of the church. Paleotti’s Discourses became an essential text used by bishops and reformers throughout Europe to discern whether religious art fit within the church’s teachings. He insisted that artists must make their messages clear and that religious paintings and sculptures should stir the faithful to piety. In the wake of decrees of the Council of Trent and the reform measures that bishops like Paleotti instituted, artists were sometimes brought before the Inquisition to answer for their compositions. The Council had stipulated that the message of religious art should be clear and forceful; it should, in other words, communicate Catholic truths to the unschooled in a way that seized upon their emotions and inspired their loyalty to the Roman Church. The most famous case of the censorship of art involved the great Venetian painter Paolo Veronese, who had painted an elegant Last Supper filled with serving men and women, Germans, buffoons, and so forth. When the Venetian Inquisition demanded that he paint over these unscriptural figures, he responded by merely changing the work’s name from “The Last Supper” to “The Feast in the House of Levi.”

Popular Religion

The later Middle Ages had witnessed a vital surge in lay piety that had taken many forms. In Northern Europe, the Modern Devotion had deepened the sense of religion as an internal and individual experience. Members of confraternities had also practiced rigorous penitential disciplines that imitated those of monks and nuns. They had displayed their devotion to the sacraments and had helped the poor and downtrodden through good works. A surge in the veneration of the saints had also been evident in the foundation of scores of new pilgrimage shrines. During the Catholic Reformation all these forms of religious devotion were renewed and intensified. Through the efforts of the reforming orders the sacrament of Penance became an intense act of self-examination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In place of the often ritualistic observance of the late-medieval church, the new preachers of the Catholic Reformation taught that Penance needed to be preceded by an internal change of heart and that it should be accompanied by a rigorous inward examination of the conscience. These views show the triumph of religious views that had initially been championed by groups like the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life and Christian humanists like Erasmus. Confraternal piety lived on in the later period, too. In Northern Europe these traditional religious organizations had been attacked by several generations of Protestant preachers and had fallen into decline. In the second half of the sixteenth century, though, confraternities witnessed a renewal there and everywhere in Europe. The new confraternities of the Catholic Reformation often took the Virgin Mary as their standard bearer since Marian devotion had been widely attacked by Protestants. Many of these organizations imagined themselves as a kind of religious army of lay people that would effectively re-establish Catholicism throughout Europe. Many confraternities spread from their point of original foundation to establish constituent branches throughout the continent, becoming international movements that linked groups of the Catholic laity together across national boundaries thus sustaining the universal character of Catholicism. Some supported the revival of pilgrimages and renewed devotion to the Catholic saints, practices that had been attacked by the Protestant reformers. Everywhere in Europe, pilgrimage became a vivid symbol of Catholicism and a tool for creating Catholic identity. Luther and other Protestants had attacked pilgrimages and the saints as products of the flawed teachings of the medieval church. But the Catholic reformers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe embraced these practices as embodiments of Catholic truth since they taught that the Christian life was a journey in search of individual spiritual perfection.


The Protestant and Catholic Reformations were complex events, so complex indeed that most generalizations about them prove problematic. Important patterns nevertheless emerged in the religious world of the later Renaissance, patterns that had been shaped by the enormous controversies that had occurred between competing religions. This competition between Catholicism and Protestantism helped produce new highly defined religious orthodoxies. In the process of reforming and reordering religion in Europe, long-standing conflicts between church and state were generally resolved in favor of the secular state. As the Renaissance drew to a close, in other words, it was Europe’s princes who now possessed the power to define what religion their subjects would practice. In both early-modern Catholic and Protestant states, indoctrinating people in the principles outlined in a religion’s confession (that is, its formal statement of belief) became a central concern of the state. Catholic and Protestant rulers expended considerable energy trying to ensure uniform belief among their subjects. In this offensive, Europe’s rulers often relied on the arts—particularly theater, music, and the visual arts and architecture—to express their Protestant or Catholic principles. This campaign also left its marks on European literature, too, as authors published works that both defended and attacked their state’s religious principles.