Elliot Fernandez

The Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

The 16th century in Europe was a period of religious conflicts, in which the unity of Western Christianity was definitively broken.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-12-01

The 16th century was marked by the religious division in European Christendom. The Protestant Reformation brought to the surface religious and political rivalries and old enmities in Europe.

16th century: religiosity and popular beliefs

Folk practices: between magic and witchcraft

Where religion did not reach with sufficient force, the population resorted to the practice of ancestral traditions between paganism and pre-Christian religiosity. It was necessary to provide solutions to people's problems where religion or medicine did not reach. In this context it is necessary to distinguish between white magic (divination or love spells) and black magic (hells).

During the stage of persecution of heretics, the least able to defend themselves against the accusations of the ecclesiastical courts were the lower classes, women, the old, children and the sick. Complaints stemmed mostly from personal antagonisms and grievances and were a force for venting personal conflicts.

The great persecutions coincided in time with the times of calamities. Processes were used as scapegoats for collective sensibility.

Witchcraft during the Reformation era
Reproduction of a scene where three women are burned alive accused of witchcraft

The so-called witch hunt par excellence was carried out at the beginning of the Early Modern Age especially in Central Europe. They were based on the denunciation of supposed followers of the so-called science of witches. The persecution between the years 1450-1750 (with a maximum between 1550 and 1650) was only partly an ecclesiastical action against heresy, mainly it was a phenomenon of collective hysteria against magic and witchcraft, which made magic a crime and resulted in recriminations, denunciations, mass public trials and executions. In Castile the Court of the Inquisition did not institute trials for witchcraft until 1526, because until 1530 it was mostly busy persecuting the Jews.

The Parliament of Paris (1564-1640) confirmed 10% of death sentences (a total of 1094).

Popular religiosity and scepticism

Popular religiosity was based on piety and the exaggeration of feelings typical of the late medieval period. Contrast between sin and the fear of divine justice. There was a great omnipresence of the fear of death, which was conjured up with Christian rites lived from a more pagan than evangelical religiosity.

Characteristic elements of religiosity:

The monarchs Louis XI of France or Philip II of Castile shared the obsession with the accumulation of images, relics and medals.

Moral and ecclesiastical abuses

Christendom was aware of the need for reform of the Church and religious practice as early as the year 1000. In the 9th century there was a great difference between the practices of the early Christians and their time. Between the centuries that separate the year 1000 and 1500 these differences became greater.

During the Late Middle Agesaccusations of the evils of the Church multiplied at all levels:

Complaints common to all churches:

The reform of the Church before the Reformation

Before the break of Christendom occurred during the Protestant Reformation, attempts at reform took place in different parts of Europe. In Florence, Girolamo Savonarola was one of the greatest exponents of criticism of Roman corruption. He was a Dominican friar and defender of exacerbated rigorism.

In bourgeois environments in the Rhineland and Burgundy, Devotio moderna was practised, a more interior piety (fewer communal external rites) and more spontaneous (without ecclesiastical mediation).

In Castile, an ecclesiastical reform focused on the regular clergy was attempted. Supported by Queen Isabella I and Cardinal Cisneros, he imposed the observance on the cloistered Franciscans. The University of Alcalá was also founded with the aim of having a more learned clergy.

Humanism recovered the classic texts and reread the Holy Scriptures. The printing press disseminated these religious texts in the vulgar language, which was known by the people.

Around the year 1500 an attempt was made to return to a more authentic religion purified of sterile theological disputes and the excesses of popular religiosity.

Social and political interests

The Religious Revolution, according to the French historian Lucien Febvre, took place in a social and political environment where territorial, group and individual variables were combined (determining the role of Martin Luther or Henry VIII of England):

In the Nordic countries Protestantism was a reaction against King Christian II of Denmark-Norway (Scandinavian unity):

Control of the churches was not just a Protestant trend. The Catholics took advantage of the weakness of the Church to gain power. In Castile, the monarchy took advantage of Rome's weakness to ratify its control through:

The Protestant Reformation

Luther and Lutheranism

Martin Luther, born in the village of Eisleben (German region of Saxony-Anhalt) in 1483. From a wealthy peasant family, he studied philosophy in Erfurt and entered as an Augustinian monk in 1505. He taught theology at the University of Wittenberg, but preferred to teaching classical languages ​​and became a teacher of Sacred Scriptures. He saw himself more as a preacher than a teacher.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther in 1529

Evolution of Luther's thought

Luther as a teacher in Wittenberg (1512-1517)

Years of internal crisis (tower experience). Anxious for salvation, eager to reform the monastic order and scandalized after a first trip to Rome (1510).

1520-1521: formulates his ideology in short books that the printing press spreads quickly

Repercussion of the spread of Luther's ideas:

The Anabaptists and the Radical Reformers

Dogmatically radical and socially more revolutionary proposals than those proposed by Luther:

Calvin and Calvinism

Luther was the doctrinal reformer, on the other hand, John Calvin was the reformer of life, of orderly worship and an effective model of the church.

Jean Cauvin (Noyon, 1509 – Geneva, 1564) was a bourgeois who studied humanities and law in Paris. After his conversion to Protestant ideas, influenced mainly by Lutheranism, he decided to travel to Basel, but settled in Geneva (1536), where he wrote "The institution of the Christian religion" (1536), a systematic exposition of his doctrine:

England: English Schism and the Anglican Reformation

The English monarchy was the protagonist and the engine of the break with the Church of Rome. In 1529 Henry VIII drew up a manuscript of ancient sources proving that spiritual supremacy belonged to the monarch and demonstrating the illegality of papal authority. The Church of England recognized Henry VIII as supreme authority in 1531. In 1532 the Church began to break ties with Rome, giving authority over marriage matters to the Archbishop of Canterbury who annulled the marriage of Henry

Basic timeline:

England's break with Rome shaped a Church with very cautious doctrinal changes. There was a fear of Luther's Protestantism. Between the period 1539-1543 many concessions made in the previous years were reversed.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation

Historiographical debate around the concept of the Counter-Reformation. In terms of the history of religion we speak of the Catholic Reformation (before and after the Lutheran Reformation). In terms of the period (of the political situation) we speak of the Counter-Reformation.

Map of Europe from 1555 with the expansion of the Protestant Reformation
Map of Europe from 1555 with the expansion of the Protestant Reformation

The Catholic Reformation involved promoting the unity and universality of the faith. Struggle directed from the top and executed equally throughout Christendom. Military and political aid countered the Protestant Reformation. The situation in 1590 was that 50% of Europe was Protestant. In 1640 the Catholic governments controlled 80% of the population.

The previous movements of the Catholic Reformation

Castile: three main axes

  1. Cultured and pious bishops: monk Jerónimo Hernando de Talavera (confessor of Queen Isabel I, 1493-1507) and Cardinal Cisneros (Toledo, 1495-1517). New model of reformist bishop: trained clergy and observance.
  2. Universities: Alcalá and Salamanca, where the main theologians who participated in the Council of Trent were trained.
  3. Inquisition (1478): against the deviation from orthodoxy (processes against the Erasmists).

Italy: private reform initiatives

  1. Groups of laymen and devout clergy, dedicated to charity for the sick, poor or orphans (Oratory of Divine Love founded in Genoa in 1497 and in Rome in 1513).
  2. Foundation of congregations of clergy with a specific task (education, sick or missions): Filipenses (Philip Neri, 1565).
  3. Regeneration of the orders: the Franciscan monk Matteo da Bassi founded the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor (1520), which defended primitive observance, preaching and service to the people.

Jesuits, between Castile and Italy: founded by the Gipuzkoa knight Ignatius of Loyola (1540). Main timeline:

The Council of Trent (1545-1563)

The Protestant Reformation put on the table the need to hold a council in the face of the Lutheran challenge. But its celebration was delayed by the rivalry between France and the emperor.

The first session of the Council of Trent came in 1545. Trento was an imperial city on the Italian side of the Alps. Three phases and successive interruptions:

During the years of the Council, several momentous events occurred:

The provisions of Trent

Doctrinal: set the principles of the Catholic Church until the 20th century :

Organizational: clericalism, uniformity and richness of the liturgical rite (opposition to Protestantism)

Bishops: science (canon law or theology) and piety. Pastors of the local church: residence, visits and impulse of diocesan synods (reforms): Carlo Borromeo (Milan, 1564-1584).

The application of the Council

Rome reinforced capital of Catholicism, diffusion centre in several ways:

A confessional Europe

The division of Christendom into different churches led to the process that German historiography calls confessionalization. The different competing churches had to outline their identity.

Dogmatic formulations :

Transformation of the relations between religious power and secular power: Pope and emperor are no longer references. One faith, one law, one king, guide the rulers: loyal subjects of various faiths, put an end to religious dissent. Freedom of conscience and worship: conflicts create religious tolerance, very unstable and doomed to failure (Augsburg, 1555 or Nantes, 1598).