State of Europe Before the Reformation: The Nations of Europe Prepared for Reformation (Chapter 5)

State of Europe Before the Reformation

Excerpt adapted from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, Swiss Protestant minister, translated by H. White (Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh: 1846).

History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.

Chapter 5

The Nations of Europe Prepared for Reformation

Popular Feeling for Freedom Rises

We have seen God’s preparations among the princes for the work he was about to accomplish: let us now consider what they were among their subjects. It would have been of less importance for the chiefs to have been ready, if the nations themselves had not been so. The discoveries made by the kings had acted gradually upon the people. The wisest of them began to grow accustomed to the idea that the bishop of Rome was a mere man, and sometimes even a very bad man. The people in general began to suspect that he was not much holier than their own bishops, whose reputation was very equivocal. The licentiousness of the popes excited the indignation of Christendom, and a hatred of the Roman name was deeply seated in the hearts of nations.

Numerous causes at the same time facilitated the emancipation of the various countries of the West. Let us cast a glance over their condition at this period.

The Lord Sows Seeds of Reformation in Germany

The Empire was a confederation of different states, having an emperor at their head, and each possessing sovereignty within its own territories. The Imperial Diet, composed of all the princes or sovereign states, exercised the legislative power for all the Germanic body. It was the emperor’s duty to ratify the laws, decrees, and recesses of this assembly, and he had the charge of applying them and putting them into execution. The seven most powerful princes, under the title of Electors, had the privilege of conferring the imperial crown.

The north of Germany, inhabited principally by the ancient Saxon race, had acquired the greatest portion of liberty. The emperor, whose hereditary possessions were continually harassed by the Turks, was compelled to keep on good terms with these princes and their courageous subjects, who were at that time necessary to him. Several free cities in the north, west, and south of the empire, had by their commerce, manufactures, and industry, attained a high degree of prosperity, and consequently of independence. The powerful house of Austria, which wore the imperial crown, held most of the states of southern Germany in its power, and narrowly watched every movement. It was preparing to extend its dominion over the whole of the empire, and even beyond it, when the Reformation raised a powerful barrier against its encroachments and saved the independence of Europe.

As Judea, when Christianity first appeared, was in the center of the old world, so Germany was the center of Christendom. It touched, at the same time, in the Low Countries, England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, Denmark, and all the North. It was in the very heart of Europe that this principle of life was destined to be developed, and its pulsations were to circulate through the arteries of this great body the generous blood that was appointed to vivify all its members.

The particular form of constitution which the empire had received, conformable with the dispensations of Providence, favored the propagation of new ideas. If Germany had been a monarchy strictly so called, like France or England, the arbitrary will of the sovereign might have sufficed to check for a while the progress of the Gospel. But it was a confederation. The truth, opposed in one state, might be received with favor in another.

The internal peace that Maximilian had secured to the empire was no less favorable to the Reformation. For a long time the numerous members of the Germanic body seemed to have taken a pleasure in tearing each other to pieces. Nothing had been seen but confusion, discord, and wars incessantly renewed. Neighbors were against neighbors, town against town, nobles against nobles. Maximilian had laid a firm foundation of public order in the Imperial Chamber, an institution appointed to decide all differences between the various states. The German nations, after so many disorders and anxieties, saw the beginning of a new era of security and repose. Nevertheless Germany, when Luther appeared, still presented to the eye of the observer that motion which agitates the sea after a storm of long continuance. The calm was yet uncertain. The first breeze might make the tempest burst forth anew. Of this we shall see more than one example.

The Reformation, by communicating a new impulse to the German race, forever destroyed the old causes of agitation. It put an end to the barbarous system that had hitherto prevailed and gave a new one to Europe.

Meanwhile the religion of Jesus Christ had exerted on Germany its peculiar influence. The third estate (the commonalty) had rapidly advanced. In the different parts of the empire, particularly in the free cities, numerous institutions arose, calculated to develop this imposing mass of the people. There the arts flourished: the burghers devoted themselves in security to the tranquil labors and sweet relations of social life. They became more and more accessible to information. Thus, they daily acquired greater respect and influence. It was not magistrates, who are often compelled to adapt their conduct to the political exigencies of the times; or nobles passionately fond of military glory above all things; or an ambitious and greedy priesthood, trading with religion as its peculiar property, that were to found the Reformation in Germany. It was to be the work of the middle classes, of the people, of the whole nation.

The peculiar character of the Germans seemed especially favorable to a religious reformation. They had not been enervated by a false civilization. The precious seeds that the fear of God deposits among a people had not been scattered to the winds. Ancient manners still survived. In Germany was found that uprightness, fidelity, and industry; that perseverance and religious disposition, which still flourishes there, and which promises greater success to the Gospel than the fickle, scornful, and sensual character of other European nations.

The Germans had received from Rome that great element of modern civilization: the faith. Instruction, knowledge, legislation, all except their courage and their arms, had come to them from the sacerdotal city. Strong ties had from that time connected Germany with the Papacy. The former was a spiritual conquest of the latter, and we know to what use Rome has always applied her conquests. Other nations, who had possessed the faith and civilization before the Roman pontiff existed, had maintained a greater independence with respect to it. But this subjection of the Germans was destined only to make the reaction more powerful at the moment of awakening. When the eyes of Germany should be opened, she would tear away the trammels in which she had so long been held captive. The slavery she had endured would give her a greater longing for deliverance and liberty, and the hardy champions of truth would go forth from that prison of restraint and discipline in which for ages her people had been confined.

There was at that time in Germany something very nearly resembling what in the political language of our days is termed “a see saw system.” When the head of the empire was of an energetic character, his power increased; when on the contrary he possessed little ability, the influence and authority of the princes and electors were augmented. Never had the latter felt more independent of their chief than under Maximilian at the period of the Reformation. And their leader having taken part against it, it is easy to understand how that very circumstance was favorable to the propagation of the Gospel.

In addition to this, Germany was weary of what Rome contemptuously denominated “the patience of the Germans.” The latter had in truth shown much patience since the time of Louis of Bavaria. From that period the emperors had laid down their arms, and the tiara had been placed without resistance above the crown of the Caesars. But the strife had only changed its scene of action. It had descended to lower ground. These same struggles, of which popes and emperors had set the world an example, were soon renewed on a smaller scale in every city of Germany, between the bishops and the magistrates. The burghers had taken up the sword which the chiefs of the empire had let fall.

As early as 1329, the citizens of Frankfort on the Oder had resisted with intrepidity all their ecclesiastical superiors. Having been excommunicated for their fidelity to the Margrave Louis, they had remained for twenty eight years without masses, baptism, marriage ceremonies, or funeral rites. The return of the priests and monks was greeted with laughter, like a comedy or farce. A deplorable error, no doubt, but the priests themselves were the cause of it. At the period of the Reformation these oppositions between the magistrates and the ecclesiastics had increased. Every hour the privileges and temporal assumptions of the clergy brought these two bodies into collision.

But it was not only among the burgomasters, councilors, and secretaries of the cities that Rome and her clergy found opponents. About the same time the indignation was at work among the populace. It broke out in 1493, and later in 1502, in the Rhenish provinces: the peasants, exasperated at the heavy yoke imposed upon them by their ecclesiastical sovereigns, formed among themselves what has been called the “League of the Shoes.” They began to assemble by night in Alsace, repairing by unfrequented paths to isolated hills, where they swore to pay in future no taxes but such as they had freely consented to, to abolish all tolls and jalage, to limit the power of the priests, and to plunder the Jews. Then placing a peasant’s shoe on the end of a pole by way of standard, they marched against the town of Schlettstadt, proposing to call to their assistance the free confederation of the Swiss: but they were soon dispersed. This was only one of the symptoms of the general fermentation that agitated the castles, towns, and rural districts of the empire.

Thus everywhere, from high to low, was heard a hollow murmur, forerunner of the thunderbolt that was soon to fall. Germany appeared ripe for the appointed task of the sixteenth century. Providence in its slow progress had prepared everything; and even the passions which God condemns, were directed by his almighty hand to the accomplishment of his designs.

God Works in Switzerland

Let us take a glance at the other nations of Europe.

Thirteen small republics, placed with their allies in the center of Europe, among mountains which seemed to form its citadel, composed a simple and brave nation. Who would have looked in those sequestered valleys for the men whom God would choose to be the liberators of the Church conjointly with the children of the Germans? Who would have thought that small unknown cities (scarcely raised above barbarism, hidden behind inaccessible mountains, on the shores of lakes that had found no name in history) would surpass, as regards Christianity, even Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome? Nevertheless such was the will of Him who “causeth it to rain upon one piece of land, and the piece of land whereupon it raineth not withereth.”

Other circumstances besides seemed destined to oppose numerous obstacles to the progress of the Reformation in the bosom of the Helvetic population. If the obstructions of power were to be dreaded in a monarchy, the precipitancy of the people was to be feared in a democracy.

But in Switzerland, also, the way had been prepared for the truth. It was a wild but generous stock, that had been sheltered in her deep valleys, to be grafted one day with a fruit of great value. Providence had scattered among these new people principles of courage, independence, and liberty, that were to be developed in all their majesty, so soon as the day of battle against Rome should arrive. The pope had conferred upon the Swiss the title of Protectors of the Liberty of the Church. But they seem to have understood this honorable appellation in a sense somewhat different from the pontiff. If their soldiers guarded the pope beneath the shadow of the ancient Capitol, their citizens carefully protected in the bosom of the Alps their own religious liberties against the assaults of the pope and of the clergy. The ecclesiastics were forbidden to have recourse to any foreign jurisdiction. The “Letter of the Priests” (Pfaffenbrief, 1370) was a strong protest of Swiss independence against the abuses and power of the clergy. Zurich was distinguished among all the states by its courageous resistance to the claims of Rome. Geneva, at the other extremity of Switzerland, was contending with its bishop. These two cities distinguished themselves above all the others in the great struggle that we have undertaken to describe.

But if the Helvetian towns, accessible to every amelioration, were to be drawn into the reform movement, it was not to be the case with the inhabitants of the mountains. Knowledge had not yet reached them. These cantons, the founders of Swiss liberty, proud of the part they had taken in the struggle for independence, were not easily disposed to imitate their younger brothers of the plain. Why should they change that faith under which they had expelled the Austrian, and which had consecrated by altars all the scenes of their triumphs? Their priests were the only enlightened guides to whom they could have recourse: their worship and their festivals relieved the monotony of their tranquil hours, and agreeably disturbed the silence of their peaceful homes. They remained steadfast against all religious innovations.

Italy Douses the Hope of Reformation

Passing the Alps, we find ourselves in that Italy which was in the eyes of the majority the holy land of Christendom. Whence could Europe have looked for the good of the Church if not from Italy, if not from Rome? Might not that power which raised successively so many different characters to the pontifical chair, some day place in it a pontiff who would become an instrument of blessing to the heritage of the Lord? If even there was no hope in the pontiffs, were there not bishops and councils that might reform the Church? Nothing good can come out of Nazareth: but from Jerusalem, from Rome! … Such might have been the ideas of men; but “God’s thoughts are not as their thoughts.” He said, “He that is filthy let him be filthy still;” and abandoned Italy to her unrighteousness. That land of ancient renown was by turns the victim of intestine war and of foreign invasion. The stratagems of policy, the violence of factions, the strife of arms, seemed alone destined to prevail there, and to banish for a long season the peace of the Gospel.

Italy, broken to pieces, dismembered, and without unity, appeared but little suited to receive one general impulse. Each frontier was a new barrier where the truth would be stopped.

And if the truth was destined to come from the North, how could the Italians, with so refined a taste, and with social habits so delicate in their own eyes, condescend to receive anything from the barbarous Germans? Were the men who bestowed more admiration on the regular cadence of a sonnet than on the majesty and simplicity of the Scriptures, a proper soil for the seed of the word of God? A false civilization is, of all the various conditions of a nation, that which is most repugnant to the Gospel.

Finally, whatever might be the state of affairs, Rome was always Rome to Italy. The temporal power of the popes not only led the different Italian states to court their alliance and their favor at any cost, but the universal dominion of Rome offered more than one inducement to the avarice and vanity of the ultra montane states. As soon as it became a question of emancipating the rest of the world from Rome, Italy would become Italy again; domestic quarrels would not prevail to the advantage of a foreign system; and attacks aimed against the chief of the peninsular family would be sufficient to awaken common interests and affections from their long slumber.

The Reformation had thus little prospect of success on that side of the Alps. Nevertheless, there were found beyond these mountains souls prepared to receive the light of the Gospel, and Italy was not at that hour entirely disinherited.

Spain Disappoints the Promise of Freedom – as Does Portugal

Spain possessed what Italy did not: a serious, noble minded, and religiously disposed population. In every age this people has reckoned pious and learned men among the members of its clergy, and it was sufficiently remote from Rome to be able to throw off its yoke without difficulty. There are few nations in which we might have more reasonably hoped for a revival of that primitive Christianity which Spain had received perhaps from the hands of St. Paul himself. And yet Spain did not rise up among the nations. She was to fulfill this prophecy of Divine wisdom: The first shall be last. Various circumstances led to this mournful result.

Spain, considering its isolated position and distance from Germany, would be affected only in a slight degree by the shocks of that great earthquake which so violently agitated the empire. It was occupied, besides, with very different treasures from those which the word of God was then offering to the nations. The new world eclipsed the eternal world. A virgin soil, which seemed to consist of gold and silver, inflamed the imagination of all. An eager thirst for wealth left no room in the Spanish heart for nobler thoughts. A powerful clergy, having scaffolds and treasures at its disposal, ruled in the peninsula. Spain willingly rendered a servile obedience to her priests, which by releasing her from every spiritual anxiety, left her free to give way to her passions, to go in pursuit of riches, discoveries, and new continents. Victorious over the Moors, she had, at the cost of her noblest blood, torn the crescent from the walls of Granada and many other cities, and planted the cross of Christ in its place. This great zeal for Christianity, which appeared destined to afford the liveliest expectations, turned against the truth. How could Catholic Spain, which had crushed infidelity, fail to oppose heresy? How could those who had driven Mahomet from their beautiful country allow Luther to penetrate into it? Their kings did even more: they equipped fleets against the Reformation and went to Holland and to England in search of it, that they might subdue it. But these attacks elevated the nations assailed; and erelong Spain was crushed by their united power. Thus, in consequence of the Reformation, did this Catholic country lose that temporal prosperity which had made it at first reject the spiritual liberty of the Gospel. Nevertheless, the dwellers beyond the Pyrenees were a brave and generous race. Many of its noble children, with the same ardor, but with more knowledge than those whose blood had stained the Moorish swords, came and laid down their lives as a sacrifice on the burning piles of the Inquisition.

The case was nearly the same in Portugal as in Spain. Emanuel the Fortunate gave it a “golden age,” which unfitted it for the self denial required by the Gospel. The Portuguese thronged the newly discovered roads to the East Indies and Brazil and turned their backs on Europe and the Reformation.

France Should Have Excelled in Reformation

Few countries seemed better disposed for the reception of the evangelical doctrines than France. In that country almost all the intellectual and spiritual life of the Middle Ages had been concentrated. One might have been led to say, that paths had been opened in every direction for a great manifestation of the truth. Men of the most opposite characters, and whose influence had been most extensive over the French nation, were found to have some affinity with the Reformation. St. Bernard had given an example of that faith of the heart, of that inward piety, which is the noblest feature of the Reformation. Abelard had carried into the study of theology that rational principle, which, incapable of building up what is true, is powerful to destroy what is false.

Numerous pretended heretics had rekindled the flames of the word of God in the provinces. The university of Paris had stood up against the Church and had not feared to oppose it. At the commencement of the fifteenth century of Clemangis and the Gersons had spoken out with boldness. The Pragmatic Sanction had been a great act of independence and seemed destined to be the palladium of the Gallican liberties. The French nobles, so numerous and so jealous of their preeminence, and who at this period had seen their privileges gradually taken away to augment the kingly power, must have been favorably disposed to a religious revolution that might have restored some portion of the independence they had lost. The people, quick, intelligent, and susceptible of generous emotions, were as accessible to the truth as any other, if not more so. The Reformation in this country seemed likely to crown the long travail of many centuries.

But the chariot of France, which appeared for so many generations to be hastening onwards in the same direction, suddenly turned aside at the epoch of the Reformation, and took quite a contrary course. Such is the will of Him who is the guide of nations and of their rulers. The prince who was then seated in the chariot and held the reins, and who, as a patron of literature, seemed of all the chiefs of Roman Catholicism likely to be the foremost in promoting the Reformation, threw his subjects into another path. The symptoms of many centuries proved fallacious, and the impulse given to France was unavailing against the ambition and fanaticism of her kings. The house of Valois deprived her of that which should have belonged to her. Perhaps had she received the Gospel, she would have become too powerful. It was God’s will to select weaker nations, nations just rising into existence, to be the depositories of his truth. France, after having been almost entirely reformed, found herself Roman Catholic in the end. The sword of her princes thrown into the balance made it incline towards Rome. Alas! another sword (that of the Reformers themselves) completed the destruction of the Reformation. Hands that had been used to wield the sword, ceased to be raised to heaven in prayer. It is by the blood of its confessors, and not of its adversaries, that the Gospel triumphs.

The State of the Low Countries: Netherlands and Belgium

At the era of the Reformation the Netherlands was one of the most flourishing countries of Europe. Its people were industrious, enlightened in consequence of the numerous relations they maintained with the different parts of the world, full of courage, and enthusiastic in the cause of their independence, privileges, and liberties. Situated at the very gates of Germany, it would be one of the first to hear the report of the Reformation.

Two very distinct parties composed its population. The more southern portion, that overflowed with wealth, gave way. How could all these manufactures carried to the highest degree of perfection, this immense commerce by land and sea: Bruges, that great mart of the northern trade, Antwerp, the queen of merchant cities, how could all these resign themselves to a long and bloody struggle about questions of faith?

On the contrary, the northern provinces, defended by their sand hills, the sea, and their canals, and still more by the simplicity of their manners, and their determination to lose everything rather than the Gospel, not only preserved their freedom, their privileges, and their faith, but even achieved their independence and a glorious nationality.

Only God Knew What Good Could Come Out of England and Scotland

England gave but little promise of what she afterwards became. Driven out of the continent, where she had long and obstinately attempted the conquest of France, she began to turn her eyes towards the sea, as to a kingdom destined to be the real object of her conquests, and whose inheritance was reserved for her. Twice converted to Christianity (once under the ancient Britons, and again under the Anglo Saxons) she paid with great devotion the annual tribute of St. Peter’s pence. Yet high destinies were in reserve for her. Mistress of the ocean and touching at once upon all quarters of the globe, she was to become one day, with the nation to which she should give birth, the hand of God to scatter the seeds of life in the most distant islands and over the widest continents. Already there were a few circumstances foreboding her mighty destiny: great learning had shone in the British islands, and some glimmerings of it still remained. A crowd of foreigners, artists, merchants, and artisans, coming from the Low Countries, Germany, and other places, filled their cities and their havens. The new religious ideas would thus easily be carried thither.

Finally, England had then for king an eccentric prince, who, endowed with some information and great courage, changed his projects and his ideas every hour, and turned from one side to the other according to the direction in which his violent passions drove him. It was possible that one of the Eighth Henry’s caprices might someday be favorable to the Reformation.

Scotland was at this time distracted by factions. A king of five years old, a queen regent, ambitious nobles, and an influential clergy, harassed this courageous people in every direction. They were destined, however, erelong to shine in the first rank among those who should receive the Reformation.

Scandinavian Dawn of Reformation

The three kingdoms of the North: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, were united under a common scepter. These rude and warlike people seemed to have little connection with the doctrine of love and peace. Yet by their very energy they were perhaps better disposed than the nations of the South to receive the power of the Gospel. But these sons of warriors and of pirates brought, methinks, too warlike a character into that protestant cause, which their swords in later times so heroically defended.

Eastern Europe and the Reformation

Russia, driven into the extremity of Europe, had but few relations with the other states. Besides, she belonged to the Greek communion; and the Reformation effected in the Western exerted little or no influence on the Eastern church.

Poland seemed well prepared for a reform. The neighborhood of the Bohemian and Moravian Christians had disposed it to receive the evangelical impulse, which by its vicinity to Germany was likely to be promptly communicated. As early as 1500 the nobility of Great Poland had demanded that the cup should be given to the laity, by appealing to the customs of the primitive Church. The liberty enjoyed in its cities, the independence of its nobles, made it a secure asylum for all Christians who had been persecuted in their own country. The truth they carried with them was joyfully received by a great number of the inhabitants. Yet it is one of the countries which, in our days, possesses the fewest confessors.

The flame of the Reformation, which had long burnt brightly in Bohemia, had been nearly extinguished in blood. Nevertheless, some precious remnants, escaped from the slaughter, were still alive to see the day which Huss had foretold.

Hungary had been torn in pieces by intestine wars under the government of princes without ability or experience, and who had eventually bound the fate of their subjects to Austria, by enrolling this powerful family among the heirs to their crown.

Such was the state of Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, which was destined to produce so great a transformation in Christian society.