An Introduction to Early Modern European History
(16th & 17th Centuries)

by Jean Mason

The modern world began sometime around 1500, at least according to most of the experts. By that date, the Renaissance had been underway in Italy for about 150 years and its ideas had spread throughout Europe. It is impossible to catch the complete flavor of the Renaissance in the brief space possible here, but at its heart it consisted of a new “worldliness,” a new emphasis on human abilities. The Church, which since the fall of Rome had been the center of European culture, had lost its dominance. Now laymen (and a few women) wrote works in the vernacular languages that dealt with this world rather than the next and artists, often supported by lay patrons, composed works that concentrated on the human not the divine.

]]>Support our sponsors The Church was no longer the strong and self-confident institution that had exercised so much power during the high middle ages. Although the embarassment of exile and schism were over, the papacy was a much weaker institution. Indeed, the popes in the early 16th century were more interested in expanding the church’s territories in Italy than in the spiritual needs of Christendom. The so-called Renaissance popes were magnificent patrons of the arts and we owe to them many of the greatest works of western art. As religious leaders, they were disastrous.

One reason for the relative decline in the church’s centrality was the rapid growth in lay literacy. The clergy no longer enjoyed a monopoly of learning. While the vast majority of the European population remained illiterate, the upper classes and many of the bourgeoisie now could read. And they had much more to read, because Gutenberg’s invention of movable type had begun the world’s first communication revolution.

Politically, Europe in the first decades of the 16th century saw the emergence of the first nation states and the creation of a highly competitive state system. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had united the country, had driven the Moors out of the penninsula, and had sent Christopher Columbus out to see what he could find. In France, the Valois kings had gathered under their control most of what is now that country. In England, the Tudors had ended the divisive Wars of the Roses and established their dynasty.

But European politics was based, not on national interests, but rather on dynastic rivalries. The most successful dynasts were the Hapsburgs. This family had managed to expand its territorial possessions in Germany; more importantly, they had succeeded in establishing a priority claim to the largely honorific but prestigious title, Holy Roman Empire. With this title in hand, the Hapsburgs managed to marry very, very well. First, a Hapsburg heir married the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy and thus brought to the family holdings the low countries and important territories along the Rhine. Then, their son, Philip the Fair married Juana, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who became heiress to her parents’ possessions when her only brother died. Thus, their son, Charles, inherited extensive territories in Germany, Spain and Spain’s possessions in Italy and the New World, and the economically important low countries. In 1518, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor as well. Charles V was the most powerful ruler in all Europe.

Charles’ great rival for preeminence was Francis I, the Valois king of France. Although Francis’ territories were not as extensive as those of the Hapsburgs, they were more united and more readily exploitable. The French had long looked to expand southward at the expense of a disunited but wealthy Italy. It was in Italy that the ambitions of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Valois dynasty clashed as each strove to achieve hegemony over the peninnsula. This dynastic rivalry would shape European politics throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

[As an aside, we might note that the English (whom we often seem to believe were somehow at the center of historical events) were at best supporting players in this dynastic game. The English were often courted by one or the other of the major players because their support might well tilt the balance in favor of one side or another. But more often than not, the English rulers were gulled into involving themselves in continental conflicts in which they served not their own but their “ally’s” interests.]

European politics became even more complicated when a religious revolution was added to the mix. On October 31, 1517, an obsure German monk posted a series of propositions on the church door in the town of Wittenburg and offered to debate their validity. (This was the accepted way to originate an academic debate.) Within three years, the unity of the western Christian church had been irretrieviably destroyed and the course of western civilization had been massively altered.

Martin Luther did not intend to shatter the fabric of the church. Rather, he sought to reform it, to end certain practices that he believed were contrary to scripture and to the true teachings of Jesus. He was particularly exercised about the sale of indulgences, which, in the eyes of many who purchased them, seemed to promise forgiveness of sins and remission of penalties in exchange for money.

Luther was especially upset with this practice because he, after careful study of the scriptures, had concluded that salvation could not be earned through works but rather was given to the faithful through God’s unending grace, as demonstrated by Christ’s acceptance of death on the cross as the only and for always sacrifice for humankind’s sins. (Whew! Imagine trying to encapsulate all of Protestant theology in one sentence.)

Luther’s 95 Theses were not fated to remain obscure. They were copied, printed and circulated throughout Germany. They enjoyed immediate success, less because of their theological premises but rather because of their attack on the Papacy and its financial exploitation of Germany. But, as Luther expounded on his theology in a series of brilliant pamphlets, more and more in Germany and elsewhere were attracted to his theological doctrines.

His insistence on the efficacy of faith, not works, threatened the entire sacramental system of the existing Church, which operated on the idea that humans, to insure salvation (or to escape damnation) had to perform certain actions (confession, penance, taking the eucharist) and that only the clergy (the Church) could provide the means of salvation. If salvation could not be earned, but came only through faith, then the whole basis of the Church’s authority and power collapsed. No wonder the pope declared Luther a heretic.

The doctrines of Protestantism obviously had an emotive and intellectual appeal to large numbers of Europeans. The new ideas were particularly popular among those who had access to literacy – the commercial/urban upper and middle classes and the landed classes. Luther’s ideas also appealed to many of the intellectuals in Europe. These people had become more and more dissatisfied with the doctrines and practices of the existing church. Protestant ideas spoke to their deepest needs, as is evidenced by the fact that within a decade of posting the 95 Theses, the new religion had devotees throughout Europe.

But almost from the start, religious reform was entwined in the politics of the day. Certainly, many of the German princes who became supporters of reform were honestly committed to the new doctrines. But the fact was that the princes were opposed to the political ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who emerged as the defender of the papal church. Henry VIII of England was perfectly willing to use religious discontent to bring pressure on the papacy to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. His break with Rome created the circumstances that permitted England to become a Protestant nation.

The situation was different in other parts of Europe. In Spain, Charles enforced conformity to the orthodox church by using the already existing Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition rooted out any opinions contrary to the accepted doctrine. In parts of Italy, the Inquisition was active as well.

The situation was somewhat different in France. The French king had signed a Concordat with the papacy that gave him almost complete control of the French church. Thus the monarch had no political motive to challenge the exisiting church. But the French king did not have at his behest an institution like the Inquisition which could be used to attack heretical ideas. Moreover, the French monarchy was much less internally powerful than that of Spain, especially since the French kings mostly came out on the short end in the Hapsburgh-Valois wars. Protestant ideas thus made their way more readily into France, especially after nearby French-speaking Geneva in Switzerland became the center of an agressive and expansionistic Protestantism under John Calvin.

European politics in the 16th century were thus characterized by two sets of conflicts that at times merged into one another. There was the dynastic conflict between Valois and Hapsburg for hegemony in Europe and there was the religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant. However, when there was a choice between dynastic/national interests and religious interests, more often than not the ruler would put his dynastic/national interests before his religious beliefs.

A perfect example would be the behavior of the French king, Henry II, (1547-59) known as the Most Christian King. In his ongoing conflict with his Hapsburg rival, he was willing to undertake a secret alliance with the Ottoman Turks and give covert support to the German Protestant princes, since this caused difficulties for his rival, the Emperor Charles V. However, there is little doubt that Henry was finally induced to sign a treaty with Charles in 1559 because he wished to turn his attention to a troubling internal problem, the expansion of Protestantism within France.

When Henry was killed while participating in a tournament celebrating this peace (just retribution for his religious policies, his Protestant subjects believed), perhaps between 10 and 20% of his subjects had adopted the reformed doctrines. France had been the target of a missionary effort headed by the leader of Protestant Geneva, Jean Calvin, himself a Frenchman. Calvin had converted to the reformed faith around 1533 and since 1541 had been leader of the militant and rigorous Swiss city of Geneva. Calvin developed a reformed theology that stressed the need for the elect to be active soldiers of God’s kingdom. And so it was in its Calvinist rather than more quietist Lutheran guise that Protestantism went forth to do battle. (I will not get into predestination, the elect and Calvinist theology here. Aren’t you glad?)

The growth of a rival faith was always viewed as dangerous in sixteenth century political thought. The concept of tolerating divergent religious views was simply unimaginable. But it was especially dangerous in France, where adherence to the reformed religion was often part of a general rejection of royal or central authority. And it became particularly ominous when the reformed religion began to spread among the nobility, who had long chafed under royal control.

Henry II had clearly intended to take advantage of the peace to turn on the French Huguenots, as the Protestants were known. His death, however, left a vacuum at the center of French politics. His heir, Francis II, was a 15 year old boy who died after only a year on the throne (forcing his wife Mary to go home to Scotland, with well known results.) He was followed by his ten year old brother, Charles IX. Thus, France fell into that most parlous of conditions, a royal minority. Jockeying for control of the young king were his mother, Catherine de Medici, the ultra-Catholic Guises, and the Protestant leaning Conde family. The stage was set for several decades of religious civil war that cost thousands of lives and gravely weakened the monarchy and the country.


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