This is part one of my two part discussion of the protestant reformations.
To listen to part two, click here.
So, what were the protestant reformations, and why did they matter?
The sixteenth century not only saw the transformations resulting from the colonial exploitations of the ‘new world’.
It was also a time when much of Europe became embroiled in the social, political, and ecclesiastical changes that we now call the reformation.
In the simple version of history, the story goes that the universal catholic church had grown degenerate and beyond reform, so groups of reformers agitated for — and eventually delivered — new Christian religious organisations that are now broadly seen as Protestant. These range from the English protestantism of the Anglican church (which retained bishops along with numerous other ‘idolatrous’ practices and beliefs, such as the mass, confession to a priest, sacraments, etc.), and in other places there was continental European Lutheranism, and Calvinism and its derivatives (in Scotland, Holland, and north America).
All these emerged out of the activism that took place from the early 1400s through to the end of the 1500s (and which have continued to develop in subsequent centuries). Throughout much of this, the assumption is that Catholicism needed to change, and it did not change quickly enough — either in terms of its structures and theology and also in terms of its political role within the societies of Europe.
Indeed, there had been longstanding pressures for change within the religious and church groups that are now labelled as medieval Catholicism. Some of this had occurred within the upper hierarchy of the church itself — not least the division of the papacy in the fourteenth century (from 1378 to 1417) with the conflict between the Avignon and the Roman popes.
There were also the various social, cultural, and religious movements that gave rise to new social formations and pressure groups — such as the crusading movements from 1096 onwards, and the rise of new ‘mendicant’ religious orders based on an active engagement with communities, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
There were further reforming movements as early as the fourteenth century, most notably perhaps the Lollards of England (stemming from the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe) and the Hussite movement in Bohemia.
Thus in many respects, the reformation, when it happened in the early 1500s, was not as new or radical as we now think it to have been. What was radical was the way in which it changed the political complexion of Europe, and in particular how the power base of the Catholic church was drastically reduced, and indeed transformed.
The church had already had to live with a measure of religious pluralism within its sphere of influence, in as much as Bohemia had established itself as a distinct political entity from Rome. And the rival popes of Avignon and Rome had created a sense of diverse affiliations across the western continent.
But what happened is that the diversity erupted across nearly every Catholic state, and in some cases allegiance to the church and Catholic hegemony were lost altogether.
If you now want to listen to part two, click here.