In the Summer of 2020 scholars associated with the Erasmus Forum will embark on a two year programme of research into the consequences of the “Protestant Reformation“ - a process of reform and reaction that led to the dissolution of ‘Christendom’ and the emergence of sovereign states whose rulers, intent on the assertion of their dynastic rights domestically and externally, recast the map of Europe in a pattern that has endured to this day.
It is as well to remind ourselves at the outset of the sheer magnitude of that dissolution. In 1520 sovereign princes and their subjects, across an European terrain extending from Portugal’s Atlantic coast to the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom’s frontier with the Khanate of the Crimea, and along a north-south axis conjoining Norway and Sweden with the Sicilian island, still saw themselves as living within ‘Christendom’- a term used to describe the particular kind of order created, and sustained, by the alliance between the Cross and the Sword. The great event of that year was the coronation at Aachen, on the 23rd of October, of the twenty year old Charles I of Spain as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and there was every reason to suppose that the imperial structures would be able to contain (and suppress if need be) any possible disorder that might arise in Saxony as a result of the recent doctrinal wrangling at the faculty of theology in Wittenberg- a recent foundation of modest repute. ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ (Sola Fide in Dr Luther’s snappy Latin) might yet turn out to be just another example of late medieval disputatiousness and no more significant than most Senior Common Room quarrels, then as now.
The authorities that mattered, in both the Empire and Papacy, can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that time was on their side. Twelve centuries had passed the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity, a religion that had emerged from his empire’s eastern Mediterranean provinces and whose missionary expansion into Egypt and along the North African littoral was but a prelude to the effective subversion of the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods whose shrines, in Rome both East and West, were abandoned to nature’s encroachment from the mid- fourth century onwards. It was part of Constantine’s genius that he never made Christianity into the empire’s ‘official ‘ religion. Sporadic anti-Christian persecution, sanctioned by imperial decrees, had been a feature of the first two centuries and the early fourth century reign of Diocletian witnessed a particularly intense ten year campaign involving torture, imprisonment and executions. A generation later, when the tide had turned, there would be no equivalent, anti-pagan, crusade against the worshippers of Diana and Apollo, of Vesta, Ceres and Venus. Constantine calculated, correctly, that imperial example would be more effective any legal decree. He extended privileges to Christian centres of worship and the withdrawal of official favour from previous recipients- pagan priests, temples and ritual processions- marked the transition to a new kind of Rome, Christian as well as Imperial, ruled from his new capital city on the Bosporus: Constantinople.
Map of Europe, by Martin Waldseemueller, dedicated to the Emperor Charles V, 1520
Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg, Titian, cca 1548
Battle of Marignano, Maître à la ratière, c. 1560s showing Swiss mercenaries in action
Pope Julius II in armour exhorting Emperor Maximilian, King Louis XII of France and Ferdinand of Aragon to war on Venice
The Battle of Lepanto, Giorgio Vasari, 1572
Otto von Bismark and Pope Pius IX confront each other during the Kulturkampf between Berlin and Rome, from Kladderadatsch, 16 May 1875.