2.2 Protestant Reformation

Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation, lead to religious wars.

The Protestant Reformation from  the 1400s to 1700s was an outgrowth of the new spirit of the Renaissance and the erosion of the old medieval world view.  All kinds of authorities were questioned, especially the authority of the church.

Even though some rebellions against the church took place before printing, they were usually    local and, like the Hussite rebellion of 1415, suppressed quickly.

That changed with printing.

Johannes Gutenberg developed moveable type in Germany, and the first book printed with moveable type came off the press in the 1455.  The technology essentially allowed three people to do the work of a thousand monks and nuns.  Within 50 years, hundreds of thousands of cheap books were on the market.

The immediate impact was to make the Bible and religion in general accessible to ordinary people without the help of the church. The long-term impact was to completely revolutionize European culture.

Compare, for instance, the impact to two reformers: one active before, and the other after, the advent of the printing press.

Jan Huss

Jan Huss (1371-1415), dean of the school of philosophy at the University of Prague, was martyr to the cause of religious freedom. Outraged at the selling of indulgences, Huss openly debated various claims about the papacy from the pulpit. But he had no way to disseminate his views widely. He was was found guilty of heresy and, tricked by a false promise of safe passage, was executed in 1415.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) used the printing press to publish his 98 Theses on Oct. 31, 1517. These were basically a list of demands for church reform. Like Hus, he was outraged at the sale of indulgences. But by this time, thanks to the printing press,  ideas could spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Before the end of 1517, everyone in Europe had heard of Luther, and people crowded around printing shops, waiting for copies of the 95 Theses.

As a result, most of Northern Europe, especially Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and parts of Germany, broke away from the Catholic Church of Rome and adopted Lutheranism or Calvinism.  Henry VIII of England broke away from Rome and created the Church of England in the 1535-1540 period, executing several hundred dissenters and seizing church lands. The king also took over a church-run system of censorship, licensing printers through the Stationers Company and punishing them for religious and political dissent through the Star Chamber and the courts.

One of the three Bishops of Oxford. Thomas Cranmer, a Protestant Bishop, was burned at the stake on Oct. 16, 1556 by “bloody” Mary. Here we see him holding his hand out, into the flame, in pennance for having cooperated with the Catholic inquisition. The execution produced a powerful backlash against Catholicim in England and put Protestant Elizabeth I on the throne. Cranmer told fellow martyr Nicholas Ridley: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”

Naturally this was highly upsetting to the church and its followers, and it instituted a counter-reformation, starting a series of religious wars in the 1500s-1600s period.

All across Europe, millions of people were imprisoned, executed or killed in the religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s.  The mere possession of a publication on the “List of Prohibited Books” could lead to execution by Church authorities.

In England, the Counter-Reformation came to a head around 1553 when Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), the Catholic queen, took the throne. Hundreds were executed, including the three bishops of Oxford. (Depicted in the engraving to the right).

Annaken Heyndricks, an Anabaptist, was burned for heresy in Amsterdam in 1571.

Later English queens and kings, although proclaiming religious tolerance, continued to repress political speech. One important moment was the Nov. 5, 1605 attempt to blow up the Protestant King and Parliament by Guy Fawkes and other Catholic revolutionaries.

In France, the wars of religion accelerated in the 1500s with the suppression of the Hugenots, culminating in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572.   The fighting more or less ended with the Edict of Nantes, issued on April 13, 1598 by Henry IV of France, granting French Protestants (also known as Huguenots) substantial rights in a Catholic nation. The revocation of the edict in 1685 did not lead to more massacres, but did lead to an exodus of French intellectuals and craftsmen   to Holland, England and the Americas.

Many people were persecuted by the church in Italy. One famous philosopher who was burned at the stake in 1600 for his beliefs was Giordano Bruno.  His mistake was  proposing that the earth revolved around the sun, which was really just another star.  Another who was persecuted during this era was  Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642). Galileo was,  an Italian mathematician and a professor at the Universties of Padua and Pisa. He carried out many studies in mathematics and technology involving water pumps, engines, compasses and telescopes and other instruments. Galileo’s astronomical observations convinced him of the truth of Nicholas Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Between 1612 and 1632 he skirted dangerous confrontation with church authorities, but was finally forced to recant his views publicly under threat of torture.

Germany was torn apart by the Thirty Years War between the Catholic League and the Protestant Union, (1616-1648) and death toll was around 14 million.The fighting and oppression took place on both sides: The historic massacres of the Catholics by Protestants, such as the one led by Oliver Cromwell in Ireland were so well remembered that they continued to spur sporadic religious conflicts in the late 20th century.

In the Netherlands, fighting took place between Protestants and Catholic troops loyal to King Phillip II of Spain.