| Chapter Summary
Chapter 14: The Northern Renaissance and Reformation: Early Humanism and the Rise of Protestantism
During the late fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, humanism spread from Italy, prompting the Northern Renaissance.
This chapter discusses the development of early Northern humanism and the
religious Reformation it helped initiate.
As Renaissance ideas took hold in the
North, humanism there assumed a distinctly Christian character: what Italian
humanists had done for classical antiquity, Northern humanists sought to do
for Christian antiquity. Accordingly, Northern humanists founded schools
devoted to critical study of the church fathers, prepared new editions of
those thinkers' works, and studied Greek and Hebrew for the purpose of biblical
scholarship. They also published scholarly editions of the Bible and translated
it into vernacular languages. Important Northern humanists include Rudolf
Agricola, the first to promote the studia humanitatis in Germany; Lefèvre
d'Étaples, who wrote an important commentary on Paul's epistles; Cardinal
Ximénez, who advanced Spanish Catholicism as Grand Inquisitor; and Thomas
More, whose enigmatic Utopia offers the fist modern exploration of
the perfect state. The most prominent Christian humanist was Erasmus, who
wrote the popular satire, The Praise of Folly, edited the Greek New
Testament, and wrote on the education of the Christian prince.
Christian humanism inspired many Reformation
thinkers, particularly Martin Luther. His own close study of Scripture led
him to formulate the crucial Protestant doctrine of justification by faith.
This idea, and his outrage at the practice of indulgence, prompted Luther
to deny the spiritual mediation of the clergy, claim Scripture as the only
authority for Christians, and reject all the sacraments except baptism and
the Eucharist. After clashing with both church and imperial officials, Luther
lived under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, where he translated the
Bible into German. Though Luther did not oppose the secular state, his ideas
spoke to the dissatisfactions of the impoverished classes, who cited some
of his writings to justify revolt. In 1547, war erupted between the Lutheran
and Catholic German states and continued until the Peace of Augsburg (1555).
Paralleling Luther's Evangelical Protestantism
was the Reformed tradition. Founded by Zwingli and advanced by Calvin, this
tradition broke with Lutheranism in significant ways. While Luther reinterpreted
the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation, Zwingli argued that Christ was
only symbolically present in the Host. Further, Calvin extended the idea
of justification, making predestination his central theological tenet. Calvin
also wrote an influential summary of Protestant theology and advocated state
maintenance of public morality through the consistory.
As Calvinism spread through Europe,
Catholics responded harshly. The most violent reaction occurred in France,
where Huguenots suffered brutal persecution. After the St. Bartholomew's
Day Massacre, the Huguenot nobleman Mornay theorized Protestant resistance
to secular authority. Bloody religious warfare continued until the Protestant
Henry IV converted to Catholicism and issued the Edict of Nantes protecting
Huguenot rights. In the Netherlands, the Catholic Hapsburgs fought the united
Dutch Protestants in a series of wars that continued until 1648. After Henry
VIII detached the Church of England from Rome, England swung between Catholicism
and radical Protestantism. Under Elizabeth I, the Catholic threat ended with
the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), and the radical Puritans were temporarily
Mainstream Protestantism quickly developed
a radical fringe. Sects including the Anabaptists emerged to demand even
greater church reform. Unlike Luther or Calvin, members of these sects rejected
any link between the church and civil government. Further, they advanced
their own interpretations of the Bible and appealed to the poorer classes
with radical social doctrines, angering both Catholics and other Protestants.
These doctrines spurred uprisings, most notably the Anabaptist capture of
Münster that was crushed by a combined Catholic and Lutheran army.
During this period, Christian attitudes
toward Jews grew increasingly complicated. Both humanists and Reformation
leaders vilified Jews. Luther initially promoted kindness toward Jews but
later condemned what he saw as their resistance to Christian truth and advocated
civil action against them. Reformed leaders both denounced Luther's hatred
of Jews and believed Jews threatened their religious communities. Later,
as Protestants suffered greater persecution, they began to identify with Jews
as an exiled and oppressed people.
The church launched a systematic response
to the Protestant challenge through the Catholic Reformation. Clerical discipline
and morality were reformed, and Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent
to formulate condemnations of and theological replies to Protestant teaching.
New religious orders rose to advance church doctrine, most notably the Jesuits.
Founded by Ignatius Loyola, author of the influential Spiritual Exercises,
the Jesuits committed themselves to Christian education and serving the papacy.
The church also published the Index of Forbidden Books to restrain the spread
of Protestant ideas.
Along with the Renaissance, the Reformation
laid the foundation of the modern world. By undermining church authority,
the Reformation supported the rise of the modern centralized state, and by
contributing to ideas of political liberty, it advanced the claims of individual
freedom against those states. Further, by promoting concepts of spiritual
equality, the Reformation helped undermine medieval class distinctions. Reformation
spiritual individualism reinforced Renaissance intellectual individualism,
contributing to the Western ideal of confident, assertive selfhood. Although
many Reformation thinkers denounced capitalism, Protestant self-reliance did
contribute to the rise of the sober, disciplined middle-class businessman.
Finally, although Protestants persecuted dissenters within their own ranks,
just as Catholics persecuted Protestants, Reformation thinkers also planted
the seeds of modern religious tolerance.