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Reformation Consequences

In the Spring of 2021 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. 

The unravelling of the old order as the fog of warfare - doctrinal as well as military- descended on the European terrain in the sixteenth century is this research programme’s point of departure. In order to grasp the extent and depth of the confusion we need to rid ourselves of some early twenty first century preconceptions. "Public life" so called- that area of activity in which officialdom tells us what do with our lives - is a crowded space. The institutional list in which 'The Church', or ‘churches’, might feature would also include broadcasting organisations, aid agencies and charities generally,  local authorities, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, executive committees of trades unions and political parties, professional bodies with a view to peddle, learned societies and educators of varying stripe. In this marketplace of opinion, beliefs and doctrines, ‘religion’ has become a ‘subject’, one among many. There are syllabuses that might guide the curious along the broad pathways of ‘religious studies’, theology’s more vertiginous demands having been pushed aside. Secularisation, an elusive concept and one more often invoked than analysed, is supposed to separate modernity from its ancestors. We pause to wonder at the depth of the chasm. Hypotheses of a limp variety emerge when ‘religion’ as we know it today (with its ‘faith communities’ and ‘thought leaders’) is transposed from present to past. Back then, supposedly, there was just more of it about and people were somehow more 'religious'. None of this seems a helpful way of clarifying the issues. Assumptions, categories and labels, current in present circumstances, are of little use if we are to understand what reformation (in its many forms) actually was and what have been taken to be its consequences.

Early sixteenth century Christianity was not a denomination. It did not display articles of belief for inspection by passers by in the hope that some might be persuaded to come on board. 'The Faith' saw itself as universal, authoritative and orthodox. Sects (or ‘heresies’) were an undeniable fact of life. They came and went. Unlike these passing enthusiasms the doctrines of Catholic Faith prevailed at all times and everywhere. That was what was supposed to make them true. The Church was not in the business of offering interpretations of the world. No successful world view does anything quite as flabbily consumerist as that. Instead, it takes an axiom and makes it appear ‘natural’. ‘Class’ operated in this way for most of the twentieth century and ‘gender’ looks set to do the same job in the twenty first.  Rather like these later variants, ‘’the Faith’ (as presented by the Latin Church of the West) described reality - how things worked, both in this world and also (unlike ‘class’ and ‘gender’) the next. This was not an organisation which saw itself as existing competitively alongside other, more ‘secular’, forms of order - regal, legal, aristocratic, or military. It was coterminous with civilisation itself and the dissolution of that order was correspondingly all embracing and bloody.

It has never been possible to confine ‘the reformation’ to the syllabus demands of ‘church history‘, an exercise in the course of which theological doctrines, and those who espoused them, can be neatly labelled in contradistinction from each other. The beliefs, old ones reformulated and the ones that had just arrived on the scene, usually clashed and sometimes they overlapped. Hardly any of them could be contained inside an ecclesiastical corral. Their implications were uncontrollable. Where did authority really lie - and who was deserving of obedience? What, if any, were the rights of conscience? At what point did ‘ the right to resist’ justify armed rebellion against a prince deemed schismatic perhaps or tyrannical? And just how much ‘free will’ did anybody have? Was it really all over (bar an awful lot of shouting) just at the point that life began - God having decided already what was going to happen to you all life long while, inconveniently, withholding knowledge of the details?

To these, and a host of other questions about grace, freedom and predestination, about how churches and civil governments were best administered, answers would eventually be provided. Catechisms and formularies of faith were drawn up by the different confessions. And in that process of consolidation (or fortification), evident by the century’s middle decades, many thought it best to read the present into the past. Catholics and Protestants, for example, agreed (for different reasons and quite mistakenly) that Luther had always been a ‘Lutheran’ and the creation of a ‘Lutheran Church’  his consistent goal. Clarification of belief, summed up with doctrinal zeal, fanned the flames of hatred. Different churches now had their own version of what counted as orthodoxy and heresy. Sects multiplied; millions died. ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ remain terms in general use though, happily, to less bloody effect than in the past. The fact that we have grown used to this survival does not make its longevity any the less remarkable. This research programme into the consequences of the great divide will show the sheer variety of the contexts in which the labels ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ have been put to use - their adaptability and openness to interpretation and re-interpretation in a process of historical change observable within the European landmass as well as the Americas, north and south, Asia and Africa.


Three major areas of investigation emerge as a focus for our enquiries:

  1.  Economic life, business and commerce.
    By the beginning of the eighteenth century, a time when Europeans had by and large stopped killing each other for confessional reasons, it was becoming obvious that the continent’s catholic south, centred on the Mediterranean, was poorer than the predominantly protestant north. The northern advance, once established, has never really gone away. What role, if any, did the Catholic-Protestant controversy play in the creation, and maintenance, of this south- north divide? Might it be reflected in the differing fortunes of protestant minded north America and of the Latin American south ?


  2. Relations between sovereign nation states and the creation of international order.
    Reformation’s most obvious and immediate consequence was highly technologized warfare waged by the armies raised and paid for by the rulers of independent states. ‘Sovereignty’, understood as national independence, is a legacy of reformation politics. But if catholic and protestant beliefs were instrumental in causing warfare what role did they play in ensuring its cessation and how did Christianity accommodate itself to the new international system inaugurated at the signing of the Westphalian peace (1648) - a regime of mutually recognised borders underpinned by treaties


  3. Cultural shifts. 
    Attitudes towards the human body; charity and its objects; literacy rates; artistic patronage and the educative role of the visual arts; oaths of obligation; swearing; displays of wealth in domestic furnishings and clothing – as well as scruples about ostentatious luxury; manners generally- extending from dislike of spitting in public to the decline of duelling; curiosity about non-European manners; divisions of the working day into hours of ‘labour’ and  ‘leisure’;  introspection and confession; guilt and shame; the Christian hearth and its management by heads of household - female and male; how to cook, eat and drink: these are just some of the ways in which a very broad spectrum of Catholic-Protestant attitudes came to influence the conduct of everyday life and whose consequences seem set to stay with us for quite some time to come.


An extended account of the syllabus followed by this research programme will be published in the Spring of 2022.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire, by Johann

Map of the Holy Roman Empire, by Johann Homann, c. 1740


Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg, Titian, cca 1548

Battle of Marignano, Maître à la ratie

Battle of Marignano, by the anon. 'Maître à la Ratière', c. 1560s 

At Marignano, near Milan, on 13-14 September 1515, French artillery prevailed over Swiss mercenaries, armed with pikes.

 Kulturkampf caricature Between Berlin a

 Otto von Bismark and Pope Pius IX confront each other during the Kulturkampf between Berlin and Rome, from the magazine Kladderadatsch, 16 May 1875.

The Battle of Lepanto, by Girgio Vasari1

The Battle of Lepanto, by Giorgio Vasari, 1572

'The Holy League' (a coalition of European Catholic states) inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ottoman Turks at the naval battle fought in the Gulf of Patras on 7 October 1571

Pope Julius II in armour exhorting Emper

Pope Julius II in armour, encourages Emperor Maximilian, King Louis XII of France and Ferdinand of Aragon to wage war on Venice

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, engraved by

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, engraved by Abraham Bossee, 1651

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