|Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation lead, eventually, to calls for tolerance.|
The Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1400s to 1600s was, in part, 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.
Printing was the most important factor in accelerating cultural change from the 1400s into the modern era.
And so it is within this historical mix that we see the desire for freedom of religion, first, and freedom of speech and press, second, as emerging from the lessons that were learned so painfully in Europe.
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 (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 98 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.
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. Untold millions of people were imprisoned, executed or killed in these religious wars. 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).
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.
Another famous persecution of this era was that of 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.
All across Europe, millions of people were killed in the name of Christianity during the religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s.
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.
Religious fighting in France began with a political struggle and a series of massacres in the 1560s. It quickly spread. 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.
In the Netherlands, fighting took place between Protestants and Catholic troops loyal to King Phillip II of Spain.