Chapter 11 The Reformation

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On a broader scale, the Catholic Church, although staggered by the Reformation, soon re-grouped and fought back in two powerful ways: one planned and one accidental. The planned response was when Roman Catholic authorities undertook a massive reform within their own church at the Council of Trent. The accidental or unplanned was the founding of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuit Order, which in scope when far beyond the reforming groups just described.

The Council of Trent was an assembly of bishops, cardinals, scholars and other church officials, which met intermittently between 1545 and 1563. As early as 1537, Cardinal Contarini presented a report on abuses in the Roman Curia (most notably fiscal practices and paying for sacraments or holy offices or positions in the hierarchy of the church) to Pope Paul III. It was so incriminating that Paul at first tried to suppress it. He failed and the Protestants used the report to justify their actions. So Paul III was forced to call a general council to deal with the scandals in the church.

It is very important to understand that the Council of Trent acknowledged the abuses in the church and took serious steps to reform the church, especially the selling of church offices. They also demanded that bishops to follow stricter rules such as being highly visible by preaching regularly and conducting annual visitations to the parishes in their dioceses. Trent also produced a standardized liturgy (or Mass) and defined Roman Catholic theology in detail, a monumental task that (with some additions) would last for 400 years until the famous Vatican Two Council of the early 1960s.

The Council of Trent affirmed traditional Scholastic education for the clergy, the role of good works in salvation, the authority of tradition (i.e., church councils), the seven sacraments, transubstantiation, withholding the consecrated wine from the laity, clerical celibacy, purgatory, prayers for the dead, veneration of the saints, relics and indulgences (not the abuse of indulgences). Finally the council required that all clergy observe strict standards of discipline and morality. Trent also did much to found schools to educate children and decreed that every diocese have at least one seminary to prepare men for the priesthood (i.e., be celibate, neatly dressed, well-educated and visible and active among their parishioners).

Trent also offered resistance to Jansenism, a movement within the Catholic Church (mostly in France) that echoed the Augustinian tradition and Calvinism in that it emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. Most kings and princes were suspicious of Trent because they feared a revival of papal power and more outbreaks of religious strife in their domains. Over time, however, the popes and the Catholic Church gained the trust of Catholic rulers who came to understand that Trent was solely about religious reform and not political machinations.

The Society of Jesus: While the Council of Trent dealt with doctrine and reform, the Society of Jesus went on the offensive and sought to expand Roman Catholic territory and win back Protestants to the Roman Church. The society’s founder was St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a Basque nobleman and soldier who in 1521 suffered a devastating leg wound that ended his military career. While recuperating he read spiritual works and popular accounts of saints’ lives. His life changed and he resolved to put his energy into religious work. In 1540 he founded a new religious order: the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.

Loyola’s quintessential work (a work that is the essential embodiment, criteria or yardstick of something) was Spiritual Exercises, (composed from 1522-1524) which are a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises, divided into four thematic 'weeks' of variable length, designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days. They are a perceptive psychological guide to develop self-mastery over one’s feelings in order to live a Christian life. The manual, written for Catholics of the sixteenth century, is popular among many non Roman Catholics today.

The Jesuits required its members to complete a rigorous, advanced education in theology, languages (classical and modern), philosophy, literature, history and science. As a result of this preparation – and their unswerving loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church – they made incredibly effective missionaries. They were able to out-debate and/or out-argue most of their critics. They served as advisors to kings and princes. The Jesuits won back some Protestants especially in Germany and Austria, but were most successful as missionaries in India, China, Japan, the Philippines, and the Americas, making the Roman Catholic Church to this day the largest and most global Christian religion.

The Social Significance of the Reformation

There is an anecdotal story in The Thorn Birds, novel by Colleen McCullough, in which a priest in the early twentieth century is discussing the Reformation with his bishop. The priest makes some unflattering remarks about the Protestant reformers and is surprised when his bishop said: that may be true but never forget that the Reformation gave us a better mannered Catholic Church. In the fifteenth century (1400s), there was much to be desired concerning the “manners” of the church. The clergy and religious made up six to eight percent of the population; they were everywhere and had considerable authority which they often abused. They legislated and taxed, they had their own law courts and, when they did not get their own way, they used blackmail devices such as excommunication, or other forms of religious censure in order to deprive, suspend or limit membership in the church, including admittance to heaven.

As the Sixteenth Century opened, the church still pervaded every aspect of life. The church calendar regulated daily living and about one-third of the year was given over to some kind of religious observance or celebration. Periods of fasting, when certain foods like meat, eggs and butter were forbidden, were mandatory (remember 1522, when Zwingli broke the Lenten fast because it was not Biblical). Monasteries and nunneries were prominent and powerful institutions. They educated the children of the nobility and were well paid for their services.

On the streets of all towns and cities, friars (like the Franciscans) begged for money. The mass and other church services (except for sermons) were in Latin. Images of the saints were venerated almost to the point of idolatry and religious shrines made huge amounts of dollars from pilgrims who would travel for months to reach such shrines; and then pray and give an offering, hoping for a miracle or eternal salvation. And, of course, special preachers, like John Tetzel, would come and sell indulgences. Many clergy visited prostitutes or kept concubines and all the clergy were exempt from taxation and from criminal codes. It is no wonder that society in general was open to the teachings of the reformers.

By the mid Sixteenth Century however, after the Reformation had become a reality, there were visible and permanent societal and religious changes. Even though the same aristocratic families governed as before and the rich generally got richer as the poor got poorer, the number of clergy fell by two-thirds and religious holy days shrank by one-third. In northern Europe, monasteries almost disappeared in non-Catholic areas; in France and southern Europe, there was a smaller drop in the numbers of clergy and monasteries were better governed - as the new orders like the Capuchins and Ursulines brought a more authentic Christian charity to ordinary people. In all Europe, the number of churches dropped by a third; the Protestants worshiping in the vernacular and the Catholics in Latin. Catholic churches remained ornate with pictures, stained glass, altars and shrines with relics but many Protestant churches removed most of these - with Calvinists worshiping in plain white-washed chapels.

In Germany, copies of Luther’s translation of the Bible (or excerpts of it) were found more and more often in private homes and Protestant clergy urged the reading and meditation of the Bible. In England, the reforming clergy under Edward VI encouraged the reading of the Great Bible in all churches and even his sister Mary, when she succeeded him, continued the practice. Calvin encouraged personal study of the Bible and compared the Bible to a pair of glasses, that enable humans to properly interpret what they see in creation: For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture [in the same way], gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.

Protestant clergy were encouraged to marry; Catholic clergy were required to remain celibate. Clergy now paid taxes and were punished for their crimes in secular courts. In Protestant communities, roughly equal numbers of clergy and laity helped govern the community but in Catholic countries the Church worked with the state in governing the community. Not all Protestant clergy and laity remained enthusiastic about the new religion and over half of the original converts (partly due to the work of the Jesuits) returned to the Catholic Church by the end of the sixteenth century. In the mid sixteenth century one-half of Europe was Protestant; a century later the percentage was one-fifth.


The Catholic theologians of the Counter Reformation recognized the connection between humanism and the Reformation. They saw the dangers of humanism and the damage humanism without proper guidance had done to the church, so they tempered humanism with the guidance of the Scholastic Fathers of the high middle ages, such as Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola argued that the Scholastic fathers - being of more recent date - had the clearest understanding of what the Bible and the Church fathers taught. Thus the Scholastics should be used as a lens to study the past.

But this was not so in northern humanism. One of the major cultural achievements of the Reformation was the introduction and implementation of humanist educational reforms in new Protestant schools and universities. Moreover, the northern humanists were better able to maintain a balance between the humanities and religion and were united in their opposition to medieval Scholasticism which – it should be remembered - was not so much a philosophy or a theology as much as a method of learning. Scholasticism placed a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning which was often a dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, both of whom wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue and with reasoned arguments. Protestant Humanists broke free of dialectical reasoning by philological accuracy and an objective quest for truth (remember Lorenzo Valla and his uncovering the Donation of Constantine forgery) in the investigation of original sources which proved to be a powerful tool for the exposition of Protestant doctrines.

In 1518, when Philip Melanchthon, a humanist professor of Greek, arrived at the University of Wittenberg, his first act was to reform the curriculum on the humanist model. In his first address, On Improving the Studies of the Youth, he claimed to be the defender of good letters and classical studies against the barbarians who still practiced the barbarous arts. By barbarians, he was referring to the Scholastics, whose methodology of dialectical reasoning to find truth, he believed actually hurt both good letters and sound biblical doctrine.

Melanchthon considered Scholasticism as a mortal hindrance to Greek studies, mathematics, Biblical studies and oratory and he urged more careful study of history, poetry and other humanistic studies. Luther and Melanchthon completely restructured the university curriculum. Commentaries on Peter Lombard, Scholastic lectures of Aristotle and canon law were dropped. Students read primary sources instead of scholastic commentaries. Candidates for theological degrees had to defend themselves on the basis of their own studies of the Bible. Finally, new chairs of Greek and Hebrew were created.

John Calvin and his successor, Theodore Beza, founded a Genevan Academy (later the University of Geneva) to train Calvinist ministers and pursue ideals similar to those of Melanchthon and Luther’s University at Wittenberg. Calvinist refugees who studied at Geneva would later carry Calvin’s ideas to France, Scotland, England and the New World. There was also the side benefit of spreading Hebrew and Greek studies to other European countries.

Not all northern humanists agreed. Erasmus came to fear the Reformation as a threat not just to the Roman Catholic Church but to the liberal arts and sound learning. Sebastian Franck (1499-1543), a German freethinker, humanist, and radical reformer, pointed out the parallels between Luther’s and Zwingli’s debates over Christ’s presence in the Eucharist to the old Scholastic debates about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The bottom line was that both Erasmus and the free-thinking Franck saw a narrowing of humanism once it was taken over by Protestant thinking.

Sociologically, two observations can be made. First, The Reformers were politically conservative and sought to work within the political framework they knew. They saw themselves as subject to civic responsibilities and obligations. Some scholars believe they were so conservative that they actually encouraged the medieval status quo. Second, Humanist culture and learning remained indebted to the Reformation. Protestant schools preserved for the modern world many of the basic pedagogical achievements of humanism. There, the Studia Humanitatis found a permanent home even at the height of conservative Protestant Reformation.

The Changing Role of Women and Family Life

The Reformation challenged the traditional way of looking at women. Women were now seen as wives and helpmates, not temptresses whose only virtue was to be life-long holy virgins. Thus the reformers encouraged clerical marriage and praised women for their vocation as wives, mothers and some professions such as midwifery and working beside their husbands as shopkeepers or merchants.

Wives did, to be sure, remained subject to their husbands but new laws gave them greater dignity and protection. Clerical marriage was praised not just to relieve the male from the temptation of fornication but because the partnership of husband and wife in marriage actually assisted the minister to be more effective by understanding married life and by the wife’s helping her husband with the cares of daily living. Thus by rejecting the medieval ideal of celibacy, the Protestants stressed, perhaps for the first time since the early days of Christianity, the sacredness of home and family. In Protestant countries, women slowly began to achieve a growing equality with men which was reflected when women were openly allowed more and more to seek divorce, especially on grounds of adultery and abandonment.

This led to the idea that marriage was not just for the procreation of children or to remove the temptation to fornication but was an institution of mutual support. As written in Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, matrimony was ordained…for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. In Protestant countries women gained the same rights as men to divorce and remarry and more grounds for divorce and remarriage were enumerated. Now that the Bible was read in the vernacular, women found new dignity based on the Scriptures. For example in Book of Ephesians, it does indeed say that a woman must obey and reverence her husband but then a few lines later it also says that a man must cherish his wife and love her as Christ loved the Church ending with the words: Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife [see] that she reverence [her] husband.

Convents (nunneries) were often attacked by unhappy nuns who criticized the male dominance over them, as only males could be priests or bishops and only males could celebrate the Eucharist or administer the sacraments. On the other hand, some nuns of noble extraction opposed such changes, arguing that the convent offered them a more independent form of life because it kept out the secular world. Noble and upper class women, who had found new freedoms during the Renaissance, also found grounds for lives more independent of male supervision. Like the Ursulines, Protestants wanted women to become pious housewives and so they encouraged the education of girls so that they could model their lives on the Bible. All in all, in Catholic and Protestant countries alike, women did make many advancements in dignity and personal freedom even though these new rights paled to the rights many women take for granted today.

Later Marriages

Between 1500 and 1800, European men and women married at later ages than they had during the middle ages: men in the mid to late twenties and women in their early to mid-twenties. Catholic and Protestant countries both required mutual (and if applicable for young adults, parental) consent, and public ceremonies before marriage could be deemed valid. Late marriages reflected the difficulties couples had in supporting themselves. So marriages were delayed. Moreover, in the sixteenth century, one in five women never married and combined with a large number of widows (from religious wars) created a problem of an excess of marriageable females. Later marriages also created shorter marriages and higher female mortality rates during childbirth. Thus, late marriage also meant frequent remarriages for men; and so it comes as no surprise that between 1600 and 1800 the number of orphanages and Foundling Homes or Hospitals (places where unwanted infants were left and raised) grew dramatically.

Arranged Marriages

Marriages tended to be arranged and parents met and discussed the terms of marriage before the betrothals and marriage took place; and wealth and social standing were important factors. Yet unlike previous ages it was not uncommon for brides and grooms to have known each other for some time before marriage and parents were becoming more sensitive to the bride and groom’s feelings toward one another. Parents rarely forced strangers to live together and children had more influence on a potentially undesirable marriage, which was in itself (even by the old rules often ignored) was an impediment. So the standard became that the best marriages resulted when both the bride and the groom and their families agreed on the choice marriage partners.

Family Size

Families usually consisted of a father and mother (and perhaps one or more of their parents) with anywhere from four to eight surviving children. Most families had at least five children but child mortality rates were high with one child in five dying by the age of five and only half of families’ children reaching the age of twenty.

Wet Nursing and Birth Control

Wet Nursing was the practice of women who were paid to nurse other women’s’ children. Although frowned upon by many Churches, wet nursing made it possible for many poorer women to supplement family income. Having poorer women as wet nurses appealed to many upper class women – and was like what we might call a status symbol. However, wet nursing seems to have increased infant mortality to milk other than that of their own mother, especially when wet nurses often were malnourished and lived in less sanitary conditions. On the other hand, new mothers who nursed found it to be a natural form of Birth Control – about 75% effective. All artificial methods of birth control (dating back to antiquity and mostly ineffective) were more common than usually assumed and only partially effective. Nevertheless, all of these were considered a major sin by Church officials who referenced Thomas Aquinas who had taught that a moral act must aid and abet, never frustrate, nature’s goal. So the question was often hotly debated whether or not sex was to be used just for procreation or for mutual affection (enjoyment) and support as well.

Loving Families

In our culture today, love between spouses and between parents and children is a given. But in the Renaissance and Reformation of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as not a given. Children between the ages of eight and thirteen we often sent from their homes to become apprentices, in study in schools or even become employees – and often in unhappy circumstances or surroundings. Widowers and widows often remarried quickly – often within a few months – of losing a spouse and there were many marriages of extreme differences of age such as men in their fifties married to girls in their late teens or twenties.

The reason for such seeming callous attitudes towards love and parental affection is rooted in pragmatism (practicality). Children taught a trade became self-supporting. Life was hard and at best uncertain, so quick remarriage was natural. A young bride married to an older man would generally not suffer from hunger or want. It is an error to misjudge the apparent coldness or over practicality of men and women who lived in a world in which disease, famine or war could and did destroy lives.

The Reformation and Literature

In the last chapter we saw how Humanism affected the values of European Literature. During the Italian Renaissance, the human person and his or her needs and personality broke forth. In his poem Il Canzoniere, Petrarch is captured by romantic love for Laura whose beauty made his give up his priestly vocation. And Boccaccio’s Decameron depicted bawdy sketches of love, witticism and practical jokes. Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier described the ideal princely court, the duties of a courtier and many details about the philosophical, cultured and lively conversations that should take place among courtiers. Christine de Pizan chronicled of the great women of history. And in his book The Prince, Machiavelli gave secular rulers advice on how to gain and hold on to power.

In the Northern Renaissance which was admittedly more serious and religious in feeling, Jean Bodin in his treatise, The Six Lives of the Republic, defended the sovereign rights of a monarch. Erasmus was the literary giant of the Northern Renaissance. We have noted his Colloquies or dialogues teaching his students how to speak and live well; his Adages (Leave no stone unturned and Where there is smoke, there is fire); The Praise of Folly, his satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine, and, of course, his satire Julius Exclusus, picturing the worldly Pope Julius II left outside the gates of Heaven. Finally, there was the English humanist, Thomas More, whose best known work, Utopia, depicted an imaginary society that had overcome all social and political injustice by holding all property and goods in common and requiring every person to earn their own living.

The Reformation continued these changes and the writers of the post-Reformational period had elements of both humanism (man is the measure of all things) and intense religious reform (man is saved by Faith alone). Spanish post-Reformational literature was found in two major influences: traditional Catholic teaching and the aggressive piety of the Spanish monarchs. Thus Spanish literature remained more Catholic and medieval than French or English literature where two major Protestant movements had affected the culture. Spanish writers who best reflected this conservatism were priests: Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderon. But one Spanish writer, considered to be Europe’s first novelist, was able to blend medieval piety and humanism; he was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Cervantes (1547-1616) was born in Alcalá de Henares, in Castile, the son of a barber-surgeon of Galician descent and daughter of a noblewoman whose father had lost his fortune. As a child he moved about a lot and how much education he received is debatable. As a young man, he worked for a Spanish cardinal in Rome and later, as a naval-marine, he was decorated for gallantry in the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) against the Turks. His ship was later captured and he spent five years as a galley slave until ransomed by his parents. Back home, he worked as a tax collector and was imprisoned several times for padding (cheating at) his accounts. And it was around 1603, while in prison, that he began his most famous work, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote follows the adventures of Alonso Quijano, a minor nobleman, who reads so many novels of chivalry that he decides to set out as a wandering knight in search of adventure, under the name Don Quixote. He puts on rusty old armor with a barbers basin for a helmet and recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, who often uses wit in dealing with Don Quixote's exaggerated speeches on antiquated knighthood. He chooses for his inspiration a simple peasant girl named Dulcinea whom he imagines to be a noble lady to whom he could dedicate his life. Sancho watches with amusement as Don Quixote does “battle” with a windmill which he supposes is a dragon and then proceeds on a series of more misadventures each time making a fool of himself. His adventure ends sadly when a friend defeats him and forces him to renounce his quest for knighthood. The tragedy is that Quixote does not return to his senses but returns to his village to die a brokenhearted old man. Don Quixote with its juxtaposition of down-to-earth realism and religious idealism is important because it is the classic model of the modern romance or novel, and the prototype of the comic novel.

Just as Cervantes left his indelible mark on the Spanish language and literature, so in like manner, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) has come to be regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. We know that he was brought up at Stratford-upon-Avon and married Anne Hathaway at the age of eighteen fathering three children. We know that he was a schoolteacher and as such gained a broad knowledge of Renaissance literature. By 1592, he was part owner of a playing company. He produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last year, he wrote tragicomedies and collaborated with other playwrights.

Shakespeare was interested in politics but expressed no radical puritan or political opinions. He assessed government through the lens of the person (usually a ruler) who was the focus of his study. He was politically conservative and accepted the political, religious and social structure of his day. He was Anglican and expressed no support for Puritans or Roman Catholics. In Shakespeare's day, English grammar, spelling and pronunciation were less standardized than today and so his powerful expression helped shape our modern language. Although Shakespeare was not greatly revered in his lifetime, he nevertheless received a large amount of praise and recognition. His greater importance lay in his ability to express universal human themes as did the great dramatists of Ancient Greece.

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