The Northern European Renaissance and the Reformations

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, print by Albrecht Dürer, 1498 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lecture by Lisa M. Lane / 05.16.2016
Professor of History
MiraCosta College

The Northern European Renaissance


In northern Europe, the climate conditions took a long time to change, and the going was tougher. Even so, many humanist works did make their way north. There the new ideas encountered a more intellectual kind of Christianity than that found in southern Europe. Scholasticism had emerged in northern Europe, and during the 16th century the centers of what we call “Christian humanism” or “northern humanism” were England, France, and the Netherlands.

The examination and discussion of Bible stories, saints lives, and the writings of the Church fathers had long been more an occupation of northern Europeans than of those close to the Church’s centers of power. You can certainly see this in northern art, particularly in the popular woodblock etchings of the time.

Art and Technology: Printing

Woodblock printing had become more popular with the adoption of paper as a cheaper alternative to parchment, which was made from sheepskin. With the expansion of the economy in the High Middle Ages, there was greater use of linen as well as wool. Unlike wool, linen is made from a plant. Flax was able to grow well in much of Europe. To make it into cloth requires beating its fibers to separate them, then combing the fibers with huge spiky combs hung in a wall, then spinning the very long fibers into threads before weaving. It took a lot of labor, and flax couldn’t be grown everywhere, and it always had to be replanted (wool just grows back on the sheep each year). The spinning of it was a specialty. Thus linen was more expensive than wool, and it was also very fine, so the wealthy wore it as chemises and underlayers of clothing.

When they wore out, the linen garments were made into smaller items until these too were useless, then the cloth was thrown away. The linen “rag” could be treated and pounded into paper. “Rag and bone men” were entrepreneurs of trash, travelling from town to town collecting linen rags and bones (the bones were ground up and made into bone meal for fertilizer). Paper mills (run by water power) expanded, and the price of paper, made of a raw material that had to be paid for only in labor, became cheaper. The rags were shredded, treated and mashed up into a pulp over several days.The slurry was spread onto a screen and dried to produce paper sheets. A codex was easier to bind with the thinner pages that good paper mills could produce, and the resulting books were cheaper to obtain, spreading literacy.

Albrecht Dürer, although also a painter, was known for his woodblock etchings. Above is an example of a perfect northern theme, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (death, famine, war and pestilence).

A Gutenberg press replica at the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum, Bermuda

Images like this were carved on wood and then pressed with ink onto paper. They could be displayed like a painting, or printed in copies and sold. Illustrations could be made into books. At the same time (1498) that Dürer was creating this print, a German blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg was creating movable type.

Woodblock printing, when combined with cheap paper, made for cheaper books. Instead of copying a book by hand, one could carve each page in reverse on a plank of wood, then ink it and press it to paper. The woodblock would last for a number of printings, until the wood got pressed too often and led to blurriness. But it would produce an exact replica (unlike hand copying, which often copied over mistakes from early copied mistakes). Woodblock printing emerged in China centuries before, and they had been working there on making blocks of characters out of metal to create durable moveable type that could be reused and rearranged. That’s the innovation. But it’s easier to do with our letters, because we have only 26 or so characters to make, versus thousands for Chinese.

Gutenberg cast multiple copies of each letter and created a wooden frame for them so that letters could be rearranged. New technology meant new jobs (in this case for printsetters who could easily place the type backwards in a frame while looking at the original). Metal type lasted far longer than wood, so more copies could be made. And early printing presses were fairly portable, if you see hauling it on a wagon as portable, so they could come to towns and print off multiple copies of anything people were willing to pay for. The age of the fill-in form was here.

Christian Humanism

Woodblock printing and moveable type thus helped the spread of ideas, including the ideas of humanism being adopted in the north. The best examples of Christian or Northern Humanism are Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, who were friends and correspondents. Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly used humor and irony to show that the Church had moved far away from its initial Christian values:

Erasmus: In Praise of Folly (1509)

And for popes, that supply the place of Christ, if they should endeavor to imitate His life, to wit His poverty, labor, doctrine, cross, and contempt of life, or should they consider what the name pope, that is father, or holiness, imports, who would live more disconsolate than themselves? or who would purchase that chair with all his substance? or defend it, so purchased, with swords, poisons, and all force  imaginable? so great a profit would the access of wisdom deprive him of- wisdom did I say? nay, the least corn of that salt which Christ speaks of: so much wealth, so much honor, so much riches, so many victories, so many offices, so many dispensations, so much tribute, so  many pardons; such horses, such mules, such guards, and so much pleasure would it lose them.

You see how much I have comprehended in a little: instead of which it would bring in watchings, fastings, tears, prayers, sermons, good endeavors, sighs, and a thousand the like troublesome exercises. Nor is this least considerable: so many scribes, so many copying clerks, so  many notaries, so many advocates, so many promoters, so many secretaries, so many muleteers, so many grooms, so many bankers: in short,  that vast multitude of men that overcharge the Roman See — I mistook, I meant honor — might beg their bread.

It was possible to get away with such criticism in 1509 because the Church was far away, and the governments of northern Europe had gotten used to controlling their local churches and ignoring unpopular dictates from Rome.

Sir Thomas More (who you’ll see again soon as part of the English Reformation) went further than Erasmus in imagining what society would look like if people did follow the original tenets of Christianity. The result was communal, in an ideal medieval sense, but strangely modern and socialistic at the same time:

Sir Thomas More: Utopia (1516)

. . .”But as a matter of fact, my dear More, to tell you what I really think, as long as you have private property, and as long as cash money is the measure of all things, it is really not possible for a nation to be governed justly or happily. For justice cannot exist where all the best things in life are held by the worst citizens; nor can anyone be happy where property is limited to a few, since those few are always uneasy and the many are utterly wretched.

“So I reflect on the wonderfully wise and sacred institutions of the Utopians who are so well governed with so few laws. Among them virtue has its reward, yet everything is shared equally, and all men live in plenty. I contrast them with the many other nations which are constantly passing new ordinances and yet can never order their affairs satisfactorily. In these other nations, whatever a man can get he calls his own private property; but all the mass of laws old and new don’t enable him to secure his own, or defend it, or even distinguish it from someone else’s property. Different men lay claim, successively or all at once, to the same property; and thus arise innumerable and interminable lawsuits — fresh ones every day. . . .However abundant goods may be, when every man tries to get as much as he can for his own exclusive use, a handful of men end up sharing the whole thing, and the rest are left in poverty. The result generally is two sorts of people whose fortunes ought to lie interchanged: the rich are rapacious, wicked, and useless, while the poor are unassuming, modest men who work hard, more for the benefit of the public than of themselves.

“Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely done away with, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can mankind be happily governed. As long as private property remains, by far the largest and the best part of mankind will be oppressed by a heavy and inescapable burden of cares and anxieties. . . .”

“As for the relative ages of governments. . .you might judge more accurately if you had read their histories. If we believe these records, they had cities before there were even human inhabitants here. What ingenuity has discovered or chance hit upon could have turned up just as well in one place as the other. As a matter of fact, I believe we surpass them in natural intelligence, but they leave us far behind in their diligence and zeal to learn.

“According to their chronicles, they had heard nothing of men-from-beyond-the-equator (that’s their name for us) until we arrived, except that once, some twelve hundred years ago, a ship which a storm had blown toward Utopia was wrecked on their island. Some Romans and Egyptians were cast ashore, and never departed. Now note how the Utopians profited, through their diligence, from this one chance event. They learned every single useful art of the Roman civilization either directly from their guests, or indirectly from hints and surmises on which they based their own investigations. What benefits from the mere fact that on a single occasion some Europeans landed there! If a similar accident has hitherto brought any men here from their land, the incident has been completely forgotten, as it will be forgotten in time to come that I was ever in their country. From one such accident they made themselves masters of all our useful inventions, but I suspect it will be a long time before we accept any of their institutions which are better than ours. This willingness to learn, I think, is the really important reason for their being better governed and living more happily than we do, though we are not inferior to them in brains or resources.” . . .

Agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exceptions. They are trained in it from childhood, partly in the schools where they learn theory, and partly through field trips to nearby farms, which make something like a game of practical instruction. On these trips they not only watch the work being done, but frequently pitch in and get a workout by doing the jobs themselves.

Besides farm work (which, as I said, everybody performs), each person is taught a particular trade of his own, such as wool-working, linen-making, masonry, metal-work, or carpentry. There is no other craft that is practiced by any considerable number of them. Throughout the island people wear, and down through the centuries they have always worn, the same style of clothing, except for the distinction between the sexes, and between married and unmarried persons. Their clothing is attractive, does not hamper bodily movement, and serves for warm as well as cold weather; what is more, each household can make its own.

Every person (and this includes women as weIl as men) learns a second trade, besides agriculture. As the weaker sex, women practice the lighter crafts, such as working in wool or linen; the heavier crafts are assigned to the men. . . .

But in all this, you may get a wrong impression, if we don’t go back and consider one point more carefully. Because they allot only six hours to work, you might think the necessities of life would be in scant supply. This is far from the case. Their working hours are ample to provide not only enough but more than enough of the necessities and even the conveniences of life. You will easily appreciate this if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exists without doing any work at all. In the first place, hardly any of the women, who are a full half of the population, work; or, if they do, then as a rule their husbands lie snoring in the bed. Then there is a great lazy gang of priests and so-called religious men. Add to them all the rich, especially the landlords, who are commonly called gentlemen and nobility. Include with them their retainers, that mob of swaggering bullies. Finally, reckon in with these the sturdy and lusty beggars, who go about feigning some disease as an excuse for their idleness. You will certainly find that the things which satisfy our needs are produced by far fewer hands than you had supposed.

The important thing to understand here is that both men were dedicated to the Church and its doctrines. This was not an argument about the doctrines of the Church, or what people should believe. It was about how the Church as an earthly institution has moved away from its basic ideals, especially in the behavior of churchmen.

At the same time, the mysticism and direct contact with God that had emerged after the Black Death was still very much alive. One popular author, Thomas Thomas à Kempis, had written The Imitation of Christ back in the 15th century, saying:

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

I don’t think it would be going too far to say that most intellectual Christians in the north felt the same way.

The Protestant Reformation

Catholic Church Practices and Abuses

Now, at this point I have to change my language. I have not used the word “Catholic” very often to describe the Church, the Roman Church. It was here that the Church itself began to use the word, which means “universal”, to refer to itself and its doctrines in Europe. To use the word “Catholic” is a reminder that all Christians in Europe are in its fold. But of course the term will also be used after the Reformation to distinguish it from the new Protestant churches. The Catholic Church also continues to be called the Roman Church, to distinguish itself from the Greek.

You know from the Renaissance that the Church had become a very worldly place. Bastards of popes ran around the halls of the papal palace, brothels were run for churchmen, and some popes (like Julius II) even put on armor and fought to retain their power. The problems ran very deep, though, even far from Rome.

Passionary of Christ and Antichrist, c.1522, showing Jesus washing the feet of the poor, but the Pope (the “Anti-Christ”) having people kiss his feet. woodcut by Lucas Cranach / From At the Tribunal of Caesar: Leaves from the Story of Luther’s Life, by William Herman Theodore Dau

The Church was doing a bad job of training its bishops and priests, despite the availability of university education. Positions in the Church were often given because of nepotism or connections rather than skill. As a result, many bishops and priests were not only immoral, they were illiterate. Thus the liturgy was said in Church, but the Latin was often memorized, and often mispronounced, because the clergy didn’t actually know Latin. In some ways, this fed mysticism, because the words themselves, not understood by the priest or the people, became like magical incantations. They carried no intellectual meaning. In many ways, the great intellectual analysis going on in universities, where Church texts were studied, was completely separate from the everyday duties of churchmen.

People wanted to be bishops because it could make them rich. When bishops were given diocese or territories to run, they were able to collect tithes and taxes to create extravagant ecclesiastical palaces and courts. A bishop could rule more than one benefice, a practice called “pluralism”. Their territories could be far away from each other. Some bishops never visited their benefices at all, so that left everything in the hands of ignorant priests. So there was absenteesim in addition to pluralism. Without leadership locally, and with corruption at the top, ordinary people in many ways were moving further away from Christianity. More and Erasmus had good reason to criticize.

At the same time, the popes wanted a more extravagant Church at the very center — St Peter’s in Rome. Julius II hired Michaelangelo and Bernini to create beautiful representations of the Christianity they weren’t really practicing. This cost money. But money could be raised with indulgences.

An indulgence was a piece of paper, sealed with the pope’s seal, absolving the bearer of sins. They were first created during the Crusades, as a way to issue forgiveness to those about to die while killing the infidels in the east. According to the Church, one had to receive last rites while dying, in order to go to heaven. But even though a few priests travelled with the Crusaders, there wasn’t always a priest available when you needed one, and the Church did not want people avoiding Crusades because of this. So the first indulgences were given to Crusaders.


But by the 16th century, indulgences were being sold to make money. Indulgence preachers travelled from town to town, selling them for everything from personal forgiveness to getting your father out of purgatory. You could even buy an indulgence if you knew you were going to sin next Saturday, and be forgiven in advance. The preachers could be great salesmen: “As soon as coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

Meanwhile, a monk turned scholar at the University of Wittenberg in Germany was having a personal crisis. He prayed and did all the acts of piety prescribed by the Church, but he didn’t feel forgiven. Finally he had a revelation that salvation could be achieved only by faith. Good works (such as charity, being pious, going on Crusade, engaging in the sacraments) did not grant grace or forgiveness, even though the Church said they did. Having solved his problem, Martin Luther felt much better. Or he felt better until indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel came to town and set up his business in the town square. Luther was sickened by the idea of selling salvation, and in academic style set up a list of proposals to debate at the university. He posted them on the door of the Church, which was a kind of community bulletin board. He wrote them in Latin, but a student translated them into German, and took them to a local printing press.

Martin Luther: Ninety-Five Theses (1517)

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in case reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.

21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.

26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks

into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because

they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

75. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.

79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.

81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope. . . .

The debate never happened, but Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses caused a sensation, and everyone took sides.

Spread of the Reformation

Germany was not a unified nation as it is today — it was a collection of principalities in competition against each other. All saw political as well as spiritual opportunity in what Luther had started. One could declare oneself (and therefore ones people) to be in keeping with a more pure church that did not accept the Pope as spiritual leader. Then one could keep all the tithes and take over church land, appoint ones own bishops, and be more in keeping with pure Christianity, all at the same time. Some German princes did this, and protected Martin Luther from the Inquisition. Others stayed Catholic and became enemies of those who were “Protestant” (an epithet that stuck).

Vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible / Library of Congress

Luther, like many other Christian humanists, believed that the key to faith was for people to be able to read the Bible for themselves. New vernacular Bibles should be based on the ancient Greek bibles, not the Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Catholic Church. The Latin bible had been copied over and over, with mistranslations and errors copied and added in each generation. Luther translated the Greek bible into German, and others did the same in their countries, until there were Bibles, printed cheaply using moveable type and paper, in the vernacular language of many countries in Europe.

Lutheranism interpreted the Bible in a particular way, and kept all the social hierarchies and many traditions of the Catholic faith. But others departed in their own direction. This is why there are many Protestant churches, and only one Catholic Church. Let’s use the bread-and-wine ceremony as an example. To Catholics, when the priest blesses the bread and wine, it literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ — its actual, physical substance is transformed (transubstantiation). To Lutherans, the bread and wine, and the body and blood, co-exist in the substance once it is blessed (consubstantiation). In Zwinglism and Calvinism, the ceremony is in commemoration of the sacrifice — the substances do not change. Or look at baptism, which Lutherans and Calvinists say must be done as a baby, but Anabaptists say can only be done as an adult.

The two most important sects to know for the 16th century are the Calvinists and Anabaptists. Lutheranism remained primarily a German version of Protestantism, travelling only where Germans travelled (like to Minnesota). Calvinism was founded by French lawyer John Calvin in Geneva, with a goal of making the city of Geneva into an ideal Christian city.

John Calvin: On the Christian Life (c. 1559)

The Scripture system of which we speak aims chiefly at two objects. The former is, that the love of righteousness, to which we are by no means naturally inclined, may be instilled and implanted into our minds. The latter is, (see chap. ii.,) to prescribe a rule which will prevent us while in the pursuit of righteousness from going astray. It has numerous admirable methods of recommending righteousness. Many have been already pointed out in different parts of this work; but we shall here also briefly advert to some of them. With what better foundation can it begin than by reminding us that we must be holy, because “God is holy?” (Lev. xix. 1; 1 Pet. i. 16.) For when we were scattered abroad like lost sheep, wandering through the labyrinth of this world, he brought us back again to his own fold. When mention is made of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be the bond; not that by the merit of holiness we come into communion with him, (we ought rather first to cleave to him, in order that, pervaded with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls,) but because it greatly concerns his glory not to have any fellowship with wickedness and impurity. Wherefore he tells us that this is the end of our calling, the end to which we ought ever to have respect, if we would answer the call of God. For to what end were we rescued from the iniquity and pollution of the world into which we were plunged, if we allow ourselves, during our whole lives, to wallow in them? Besides, we are at the same time admonished, that if we would be regarded as the Lord’s people, we must inhabit the holy city Jerusalem, (Isaiah rev. 8, et alibi;) which, as he hath consecrated it to himself, it were impious for its inhabitants to profane by impurity. Hence the expressions, “Who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness,” (Ps. xv. 1, 2; xxiv. 3, 4;) for the sanctuary in which he dwells certainly ought not to be like an unclean stall.

The better to arouse us, it exhibits God the Father, who, as he hath reconciled us to himself in his Anointed, has impressed his image upon us, to which he would have us to be conformed, (Rom. v. 4.) Come, then, and let them show me a more excellent system among philosophers, who think that they only have a moral philosophy duly and orderly arranged. They, when they would give excellent exhortations to virtue, can only tell us to live agreeably to nature. Scripture derives its exhortations from the true source,when it not only enjoins us to regulate our lives with a view to God its author to whom it belongs; but after showing us that we have degenerated from our true origin, viz., the law of our Creator, adds, that Christ, through whom we have returned to favour with God, is set before us as a model, the image of which our lives should express. What do you require more effectual than this? Nay, what do you require beyond this? If the Lord adopts us for his sons on the condition that our life be a representation of Christ, the bond of our adoption,–then, unless we dedicate and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only, with the utmost perfidy, revolt from our Creator, but also abjure the Saviour himself. Then, from an enumeration of all the blessings of God, and each part of our salvation, it finds materials for exhortation. Ever since God exhibited himself to us as a Father, we must be convicted of extreme ingratitude if we do not in turn exhibit ourselves as his sons. Ever since Christ purified us by the laver of his blood, and communicated this purification by baptism, it would ill become us to be defiled with new pollution. Ever since he ingrafted us into his body, we, who are his members, should anxiously beware of contracting any stain or taint. Ever since he who is our head ascended to heaven, it is befitting in us to withdraw our affections from the earth, and with our whole soul aspire to heaven. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord, we should make it our endeavour to show forth the glory of God, and guard against being profaned by the defilement of sin. Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown, we should earnestly strive to keep them pure and uncorrupted against the day of the Lord. These, I say, are the surest foundations of a well-regulated life, and you will search in vain for any thing resembling them among philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise higher than the natural dignity of man.

Here the entire society was organized according to the Calvinist teachings and hierarchy, and Calvinism was international. Calvinists would be called Puritans in England, and Huguenots in France, and would travel with them all over the world. Anabaptists, instead of creating an organized church that combined or collaborated with the political state, took a more radical path. Even those who were confirmed Catholics could understand the basic church-state relationship of Lutheranism and Calvinism. But Anabaptists separated from the state completely, literally interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, and refusing military service and payment of taxes to the state. They thus had the honor of being persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike.

So it’s important not to take the effects of Protestantism too far — it did not lead to freedom of any kind. To associate American values of freedom with our Puritan (Calvinist) forbearers is thus incorrect. They came to America to set up their own church-and-state form of Geneva, to provide religious freedom only for themselves. And there were many intelligent objections to the way Protestantism was adopted. Both Erasmus and More were against it — they wanted true reform inside the Catholic Church, not the creation of another Church. More would die for this principle, and Erasmus would disown Martin Luther, who thanked him for starting the Reformation. Even Luther could not agree with all the implications of what had happened. In 1525, several villages of German Swabian peasants formed a federation and rebelled because their reading of the Bible said they should not be subject to their lords’ domination and oppressive taxes. Luther spoke in favor of putting down the rebellion. The righteousness of the Protestants, which emerged in opposition to the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, in itself could become oppressive.

The English Reformation

It was in England that the combination of religious and political motivations for Reformation become most obvious.

King Henry VIII was the son of the king who had ended a series of massive civil wars where the top noble families vied for power. Because of this, he was very sensitive to providing a strong male heir to succeed him.

Portrait of Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537-1547 / Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

He wasn’t meant to be king – his brother Arthur was older. Arthur had been married to princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. When he died, the alliance with Spain was threatened, so young Henry was encouraged to marry his brother’s widow. To do this, he needed a dispensation from the pope (marrying your brother’s widow wasn’t allowed). Pope Julius II (the one who put on armor, and hired Michaelangelo) granted the dispensation. Henry married Catherine, who gave him a daughter. She then went into menopause, and Henry had no male heir. So, being a scholar of the Bible himself and highly educated, he requested an annulment from the new pope, Clement VII, in 1527, on the grounds that he had violated God’s laws in marrying her in the first place. Clement refused. By this time, the pope was dealing with the Protestant Reformation, and had no intention of granting a case based on the premise that the pope had made a mistake.

Henry’s response was to break away from the Church to grant himself an annulment. He was not going Protestant, but setting himself up as the head of the Church of England. His friend and chancellor was Thomas More, the humanist, so he thought he’d have support. But Thomas, a confirmed Catholic, did not assent, for which he was beheaded as Henry solidified his power as head of the church. Henry gained support of the landed gentry by taking church lands and giving them to his supporters. Thus Parliament passed acts that made Henry the head of the church, dissolved the monasteries and other church lands, and broke England away from Rome.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, who bore him another daughter. According to Catholics, his first daughter, Mary, was the heir. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, was automatically a Protestant since she would be a bastard according to the Catholic Church. But neither was male, and Anne Boleyn got involved in conspiracies, so Henry had her condemned and married Jane Seymour, who finally bore him a son, Edward. Edward was sickly, and ruled as a teenager under strongly Protestant advisers, who tried to rout out Catholicism from England. On his death, his Catholic sister Mary took over. She married Philip II (his Most Catholic Majesty) of Spain, and persecuted Protestants until her death five years later. Anne Boleyn’s daugher Elizabeth became queen, and although she didn’t allow Catholics in high positions and arrested some who conspired against her, in general she preferred keeping the nation together to keeping religion pure.

Thus it is very difficult to separate political and religious motivations in the English Reformation. The Anglican Church to this day continues Catholic-style ceremony with a mildly Protestant theology.

The Catholic or Counter-Reformation

There is a dispute over whether what the Catholic Church did in the 16th century should be called the “Catholic” Reformation or the “Counter” Reformation. Which you choose tells me your point of view. The “Catholic Reformation” implies that the Church was already engaged in serious reforms by 1517, which I believe it was. “Counter Reformation” implies that what they did was in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, without which they would not have cleaned house.

Images Over Literacy

The 16th century was the era of Baroque Art, which was the art of the Catholic Reformation. Clearly much was being created before 1517 – Bernini’s extraordinary work was done under commission to Pope Julius II, who died in 1513. Humanism in general had caused problems for the Church, because the encouragement of pre-Christian ideas and the mass production of books meant that people were exposed to new ideas, much like had happened during the 13th century with new knowledge from the east.

The Protestant Reformation emphasized literacy in order to read the Bible in ones own language. But not everyone was literate, and most people didn’t have time to become literate. The Catholic Church had long used imagery to teach ordinary people – paintings, stained glass, illuminations. Pictures can tell extensive, complex stories. In many ways, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were huge picture books, its windows and paintings telling the stories of Christianity and teaching Christian ethics and morality. The massive construction and decoration of St Peter’s and other churches in Rome during the Renaissance continued this tradition using the new techniques of perspective (remember Masaccio’s Trinity?).

Bernini’s work in particular is associated with the Catholic Reformation. I’ll use one example, in conjunction with the story. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, and in times of outside threat the Church has welcomed mystics so long as they were not heretics. Her communion with God, unlike Joan of Arc’s, was not just voices. It was intensely visceral, almost sexual. Some say not “almost”:

St Teresa of Avila: My Life (1611)

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form — a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely. Though I often see representations of angels, my visions of them are of the type which I first mentioned. It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. They must be those who are called cherubim: they do not tell me their names but I am well aware that there is a great difference between certain angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it — indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience. 

Bernini’s statue of this moment, created 1647-52, shows this emotional contact.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by by Giancarlo Bernini, 1651 / Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Such imagery and stories emphasized an emotional, spiritual, mystical connection between the individual worshipper, saints and God. This was the one element of the Protestant experience that explained the popularity of Reformed religion. People in the 16th century wanted a closeness with God, and Protestants got this from reading Scripture. The Catholic emphasis on imagery was more open to the larger population, and the art it created was inspiring and beautiful. The drama of the human experience was more significant in this tradition than the intellectual aspects of life, and thus it appealed to many people.

Church Reforms

Pope Paul III gets much of the credit for the reforming of the Catholic Church in terms of doctrine and regulations. In addition to instituting the proper education of bishops and priests, and outlawing all clerical abuses, Paul and the Councils with whom he worked (especially the Council of Trent in 1545) developed a number of new elements designed to clarify Christianity and provide stability.

New Orders

Paul instituted new orders of monks, friars and nuns. The two most famous are the Ursuline nuns, who established monasteries in faraway places like New Orleans, and the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola, created an order of fearless “soldiers of Christ”. His book Spiritual Exercises took them to the edge of death in the form of meditations, creating an inner, Stoic strength that could answer any threat. The Jesuits went out among pagan tribes in the Americas, and among civilized cultures like China and Japan, winning souls for the Catholic Church.

The Inquisition

The foundation here was in the crusades against the Cathari and other heretics in the 12th century. In the 13th century the Dominican order organized it more effectively. The Inquisition was instrumental in the destruction of the Knights Templar (to whom elites owed lots of money after the Crusades) and the condemnation of the Beguines (a lay order of women who lived in imitation of Jesus). Paul strengthened the order and gave it more authority to persecute heretics. The focus was on Jewish and Muslim converts, and on sorcery in an effort to root out devil-worship and other threats to orthodoxy among the people of Europe.

Index of Prohibited Books

A list was made of books that good Catholics were not supposed to read. It of course included works by Luther and Calvin, but you can see all the titles here, since it was added to over the years and was in effect until 1966. What’s important here is that the list acknowledges the impact of books on people, the influence that writing has on the mind and heart.

Sublimus Dei

This 1537 document by Pope Paul outlawed the enslavement of native Americans, and focused on their peaceful conversion. He declared the natives to be rational people with souls, when others had argued that they were beasts who should be enslaved. Some see this document as the beginning of a shift in the understanding of native peoples and eventually slavery itself.