The effects of the reformation

Why did early modern states seek to curb religious dissent and how significant were their efforts?

Religious toleration is a principle taken for granted in the twenty-first century. In Early Modern states, the effects of the Reformation threatened the stability of all states in Europe and religious dissent was thought to be rightfully the state's and the church's responsibility to quell. The association between religious and political concord at the time meant that the state's religious motives depended on their political situation. According to Turchetti, 'The foundation and the maintenance of unity has been the goal of all social, political, economic, legal and religious institutions.'[1] It can be proposed that the pursuit of religious concord in the Early Modern era was linked to political unity, therefore curbing religious dissent was a high priority given the circumstances brought about by the Reformation. Degrees of toleration of other confessions and even faiths differed across states so therefore it is important to assess the attitudes and motives of particular states and their leaders at the time to decide how significant the efforts to curb religious dissent in Early Modern Europe.

The principal rationale for states in the Early Modern period considering religious concord to be vital was the assumption that a country divided in religion would be weakened, and that dissent and non-conformity would ultimately undermine the authority of the state and cause anarchy. God-given religious truth was seen as absolute and had to be upheld for the order and stability of society. 'Confessional unity was a matter of secular law, not simply religious practice.'[2] As Kings claimed to rule by Divine Right, it was believed their people should obey them as they would obey God in the same way. Therefore, if religious dissent as allowed in a state, the King's interpretation of the religion would be challenged, making it possible that the theory of Divine right itself may be false, 'Religious disunity could be interpreted as an affront to the king's divine authority.'[3] Furthermore, in Early modern society, no distinction was drawn between religion and politics, therefore dissenting against the religion was seen in the same respect as rebelling against the state. 'Since religious uniformity historically had underlain social stability and political allegiance, antitolerationists viewed dissent in religion as tantamount to treason.'[4] Overall, society relied on uniformity for success and although the scope for toleration differed from state to state, historians consider this to have been the general stance in early modern times.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the spread of the Protestant Reformation had created a series of religious divisions in the Christian church across Europe. The relationships between the church, state and the individual had been altered dramatically by the end of the century.[5] This split in western Christendom led to a pattern of religious intolerance which stained the time period with war and bloodshed. Catholic leaders and Protestant supporters alike felt that intolerance was justified. While Catholics considered themselves to be the traditional Christian civilisation with a duty to guard against the rebellion of the Protestants, the Protestants on the other hand felt they were freeing Europe from despotism and superstition. Reformers such as Luther and Calvin were dubbed as heretics whereas the Pope as the 'anti-Christ'. This split led to noticeable effects as rulers of both Catholic and Protestant states in central and Western Europe strived to use their powers to solve religious disputes for the sake of political unity. Popes since Leo X had pushed for rulers of states to deal severely with any form of heresy. Luther on the other hand appealed to secular rulers to stand against the Catholics. Therefore we can see that state rulers were also influenced to act as they did to get rid of religious dissent from their societies.

The Significance of the efforts to suppress religious dissent varied across Europe. Overall, the Reformation had caused the intolerable religious climate which led to the turmoil of the period. Catholicism reacted to Luther the same way as it had to the heresies of the late Middle Ages. However, the effects of curbing religious dissent varied: while theProtestant Reformationcould be "crushed" in Spain with 'a few dozen executions in the 1550s'[6], the same strategy failed in Germany and Northern Europe as there was a much larger threat. The justification for persecution of dissent must be understood to gauge the significance of particular ruler's attempts. Clearly toleration was condemned chiefly for encouraging schism and the feeling of sedition across Europe. Spain is an example of a Catholic state which faced serious problems from these erroneous alternatives to their religion and although not necessarily open to a significant Protestant threat experiences dissent from Muslims and was also home to a significant Jewish population. The Spanish Inquisition was Spain's resolution to the multi-religious nature of Spanish society. Most of the Iberian Peninsula had been ruled by the Moors for almost six hundred years. The Reconquista in which Christian rule was restored did not result in the complete purging of Muslims or Jews. The fact that a substantial level of Jews remained in Spain until their expulsion in 1492 shows that it was extreme measures like this which led to significant effects in the battle against non-conformity. However, converts were allowed to remain, and these 'New-Christians' posed a continuing threat within Philip II's kingdom; evidently the measures for curbing dissent were not enough to uphold Catholic orthodoxy - however the compulsory conversions of Moors and Jews to Catholicism in Spain showed a desire for religious homogeneity.

As in Spain, religious intolerance was the overriding theme during much of the early modern period in England, however the background, the motives and effects were somewhat different. Up until the late fourteenth century and the introduction of lollardy produced by Wycliff's teachings, heresy had not been a major problem in England. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Parliament passed severe legislation against Catholics and dissenters. However, there was an undercurrent of conciliation from the part of Charles II and James II with the Declarations of Indulgence. As seen across Europe, attempts to stave off the threat of war influenced the politics behind religious issues and in 1689 the Toleration Act was passed partly reacting to the delicate balance between the Anglicans and the King. The dissenters therefore took a small step towards toleration as freedom of worship was permitted under the Act. However the Act was far from complete as Catholics were excluded. The shift in policy the Act represented led to a gradual change in outlook: Persecution ultimately led to the thought that complete religious dictation was impossible. Therefore the need to curb religious dissent on a large scale was lessened, as John Locke thesis on Toleration, reflects.

In France the divide betweenCatholicismand the newProtestant denominationswas deep. In 1539, the Act of Six Articles was made to prevent the spread of Lutheranism and deemed it heretical to deny the legitimacy of Roman Catholicism. The French Wars of Religion which followed, ravaging a significant proportion of the French population are generally considered to have been ended by the Edict of Nantes in 1598. In an attempt to bring the bloodshed of the Wars of Religion to an end, the Edict was the most-far reaching attempt to achieve religious peace in Europe at the time. Formal toleration of religious practice was introduced in an attempt to stabilise the violence. However Restrictions were continued to be placed on Protestants, and what was thought of firstly as a compromise, denationalising the issue of religious reform for the next few decades, the Edict did not totally please either side of the divide. 'While the edicts of pacification could often provide the framework for peace, rarely did they lead to an automatically workable solution.' [7] One apparent success of the Edict of Nantes was a triumph for Henri IV. 'The period of the French Wars of Religion is traditionally, and justifiably, viewed as a time of great monarchical weakness.'[8] In light of the lack of monarchical stability in prior decades, the Edict therefore preserved Henri's claim to the whole kingdom of France and confirmed the role of the monarchy despite confessional discord which continued to divide the realm. The Edict is seen as another example of the changing mindset around Europe as the conflicts between Christian factions reached their peak. Following the devastation of wars such as the French Wars of Religion, arguably arising out of the need to curb religious dissent, policies towards religious toleration and pluralism were drawn up for the return of order and ultimately reconciliation was the goal in mind. In the long run, a world favourable to religious tolerance was created as it became apparent that not one sect could enforce its will on another. Ultimately, attempts to curb religious dissent can be considered to have failed as tolerance was viewed as necessary in order for death and destruction to come to an end.

Throughout Europe the spread of the Protestant Reformation had changed the nature of state-church relations. The religious conflicts were a clash between two movements certain of the divine justice of their respective causes and of the heresy of the other. In Early Modern times, rulers claimed authority from divine right and it was because of the parallel between religion and politics that the threat of religious dissent was such an important issue. In simple terms, the religion of the territory and its inhabitants was decided by the religion of the ruler; this was the fundamental reason why religious dissent was considered to be problem which needed to be solved. The one hundred and thirty consecutive years of conflict which occurred confirmed the failure of attempts to completely suppress dissent. Ultimately individuals and states realised neither sided could force their religious will on one another. The origins of the Preaty of Augsberg in Germany, which sought to bring religious peace according to the Latin principle 'cuius gegio, eius religio', typifies the push for confessionalisation alongside the gradual acceptance of the need for peace and this feeling evolved directly out of years of intolerance. In this instance, German princes were allowed to select either Lutherism or Catholicism within the realms they controlled and even though this measure attempted to bring an end to the religious conflict, many reformed Protestant groups were still in danger of being charged with heresy. Treaties such as Augsberg and the Edict of Nantes are considered today to have been incomplete because of the continuation of intolerance within states. Attempts like these to pacify both sides and end bloodshed, however limited they were in hindsight, prove that the religious changes Early Modern Europe experienced from the beginning of the sixteenth century brought to an end the absolute authority of rulers and the motivations for religious uniformity became outdated.


T. Brady, H. Oberman & J. Tracey (eds.), Handbook of European History, 1400-1600, Vol. 2, (1994)

A. Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in EarlyModern England and America, Pennsylvania, 2001

Changing Interpretations of the Edict of Nantes: The Administrative Aspect, 1643-1661 Author(s): Ruth Kleinman Source: French Historical Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 541-571

Toleration in Early Modern Times Author(s): Herbert Butterfield Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1977), pp. 573-584

Journal Confessionalization, Community, and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870 Author(s): Joel F. Harrington and Helmut Walser Smith Source: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 77-

Royal Authority and Justice during the French Religious Wars Past & Present 184 pp. 1-31

J. Coffey, Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689, London 2000

P. Lang, The Adventure of Religious Pluralism in Early Modern France

Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation

By Ole Peter Grell, Bob Scribner

[1] Turchetti journal

[2] W.hanks 366

[3] R.a. journal p. 11

[4] Murphy p. 211

[5] Confessionalisation gerany journal p. 79

[6] J. coffey

[7] P. Lang p. 187

[8] Royal authority journal - cites D. Parker, The making of French Absolutism, (London, 1983)

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