[Above: Bernini's 'Saint Teresa in Ecstasy' at the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.]
This post is heavily indebted to Diarmid MacCulloch's Reformations: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Allen Lane, 2003).
Some historians now speak of a ‘Long Reformation’ that took place over a period of about two hundred years in both Catholic and Protestant Europe and profoundly changed the culture.
One symbol of a divided western Europe was that from 1582 Catholics and Protestants lived in different times. In that year Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar: ten days were suppressed, and the new year was to begin on 1 January rather than 25 March. France, Spain and Italy changed immediately. The Orthodox churches refused, as did Protestant Europe. (It was only in the eighteenth century that Western Europe had a single calendar; Russia did not come into line until 1918.)
‘The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors in a cosmic drama plotted by God. … Above all, large numbers of Europeans were convinced … that the momentous events through which they were living signified that the visible world was about to end.’ (MacCulloch, 550).The dual crisis of the Turkish advance and the division of western Christendom created a heightened sense of living in the end times, the phenomenon known as millenarianism. This belief was in evidence before the Reformation. The idea of a cataclysmic ending of time was found in various parts of the Bible, notably the Book of Revelation, and in the writings of the Italian Cistercian monk Joachim of Fiore in the 11th century. His works seem to divide history in three ages. The first age, of 42 generations, was of the Father, the age of the Old Covenant. The second age (42 generations again) was of the Son and therefore the world of Christianity. The third and final age would be that of the Holy Spirit. In this new age an ‘Eternal Gospel’ would be revealed ‘fulfilling’ and replacing the organized church and society would be realigned on an egalitarian and utopian monastic base. Joachim seemed to suggest the Christian era would end in 1260 with the coming of the Anti-Christ. After that his utopian age would arrive. His doctrines were condemned by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 but they continued to have a powerful influence.
Millenarianism was demonstrated in Savonarola’s (1452-98) seizure of Florence. During the carnival season that year his authority received a symbolic tribute in the ‘bonfire of the vanities’, when personal ornaments, lewd pictures, cards, and gaming tables were burned.
In the 16th century many resorted again to Joachim’s writings, and turned his prediction of the third age of the Spirit into the thousand-year rule of the Saints on earth before the last judgement. In 1534 and 1535 thousands fled to Münster to set up a new Jerusalem. In Advent 1552 the Protestant Hugh Latimer told the Countess of Suffolk:
we know by scripture, and all learned men affirm the same, that the world was meant to endure six thousand years. Now of the six thousand be passed already five thousand five hundred and fifty-two, and yet this time which is left shall be shortened for the elect’s sake, as Christ himself witnesseth (quoted MacCulloch, 551).Borrowing from Joachim (but also from Virgil and Ovid) the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe wrote of a golden age of the Church’s first thousand years, followed by a five-hundred year ‘brazen age’ when ‘began corruption to enter and increase’.
It is clear that, far from marking the birth of the modern age, the period of the Reformation saw an increase in ‘irrationalism’, marked in particular by the persecution of witches and the pursuit of necromancy and alchemy – themes which will be explored later.
In Protestant cultures in particular there was a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of God’s providence, especially as revealed in the miraculous. King Frederick II of Denmark was much perturbed by sinister hieroglyphs found on herrings. An earthquake in 1580 that shook England, northern France and the Netherlands, toppling one of the pinnacles of Westminster Abbey caused much consternation. It is possible that this earthquake turned many English people against the commercial theatre. It certainly provided an excuse for the city authorities of Coventry to suppress the traditional Corpus Christi play and to replace it with a Protestant production on the subject of the destruction of Jerusalem.
The word replaces the image
One of the major differences between Lutherans and other Protestants lay in the attitude to images. Whereas Lutherans believed some images could be helpful to devotion, to Reformed Protestants, they were idolatry and provoked God’s wrath. There were two ways in which images were destroyed. At times, in Scotland, France and the Netherlands, the destruction consisted of spontaneous mob violence. In other parts of Europe, as in Poland and Lithuania, it was a bureaucratic process. In England mob iconoclasm was a rather marginal phenomenon. Most images such as statues and rood screens were taken down and walls were whitewashed on the orders of bishops, churchwardens, and justices of the peace. In many cases, images were only partially destroyed so that a good deal of medieval art survived into the seventeenth century (where there was further iconoclasm) and beyond into the Victorian age.
In place of the image came the word. Statues were replaced by boards listing the Lord’s Prayer or the ten commandments. The funeral sermon became common and was often circulated in a printed version. However, images continued to have a place in the pages of books. The pulpit, a ‘dramatically canopied wooden preaching-turret’ furnished with hour-glasses assumed a central place. (MacCulloch, 585-6). In Shakespeare’s London sermons were popular entertainment; there were a hundred sermons each week but only thirteen play houses.
This was a deeply contested issue. Paul V to the Venetian ambassador, 1606:
‘Do you not know that so much reading of the Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?’ (quoted MacCulloch, 406).In 1564 anyone wishing to read the Bible in the vernacular had to seek permission from the local bishop. In the 1596 Roman Index the ban became total. In Italy Bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned and between 1567 and 1773 not a single Italian language bible was printed anywhere in Italy. This could never have been the case in Germany or England, where vernacular translations were permitted.
Protestants were naturally committed to bible translations. One scholar has estimated that between 1520 and 1649 1,342,500 whole bibles and New Testaments were printed for the English market, enough for every English household. But Protestants were increasingly aware of the problems involved. By the 1530s Luther’s optimistic belief that the Bible alone would spread the truth was seen to be full of dangers. Whose bible? Increasingly the magisterial reformation fell back on catechisms for children and the bible translations, such as the Elizabethan Geneva Bible (1575) (right), were accompanied by annotations explaining the text.
These were part of a massive Europe-wide educational project. Germany produced around thirty or forty different new editions of printed catechisms every decade after 1550, England more than a thousand between 1530 and 1740 (and these are the ones that have survived). By 1600 the elders and ministers of Glasgow and lesser burghs were conducting weekly catechisms on a rota basis which would cover the entire population over a few weeks. Roman Catholic countries had their own catechisms, all modelled on the Tridentine catechism of 1566.
Marriage and virginity
From the late 3rd century, with the appearance of hermits and monks, the status of virginity grew within Christianity and marriage was relegated to a secondary good (MacCulloch, 609). From the 12th century there was a long battle to impose celibacy on the clergy. In reaction to Protestantism, the last session of the Council of Trent (1563) affirmed the inviolability of vows for priests and nuns and pronounced anathema on anyone proclaiming that
‘the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to be remain in virginity or celibacy’.In his 1598 catechism, Cardinal Bellarmine asserted:
‘Marriage is a thing human, virginity a thing angelical. Marriage is according to nature, virginity is a thing above nature’.But a paradoxical parallel development within Catholicism was the exaltation of the family, particularly in Spain with its declining population and overseas empire. This is shown in the cult of St Joseph promulgated by Teresa of Avila, who was celebrated as the virtuous head of the Holy Family. The representation of the Virgin Mary also changed; she became less physical and emotional, more passive and spiritual, (though in the areas of Europe threatened by the Ottoman Empire she was portrayed as Our Lady of Victory).
Erasmus, who retained bitter memories of his time in a monastery, attacked monasticism and praised matrimony in his Encomium (1518): he wrote that the single state is
‘a barren way lf life hardly becoming to a man…let us leave celibacy for bishops…the holiest kind of life is wedlock, purely and chastely observed’.Luther, Zwingli and Calvin all married in order to demonstrate their view that marriage was superior to celibacy. The creation of a married clergy marked a social revolution and one of the great dividing marks between Catholic and Protestant Europe. In the Peace of Augsburg (1555) the Habsburgs unenthusiastically granted legal recognition the Lutheran clergy unions within the Empire.
Following Erasmus, Protestants developed a new theology of marriage. It was no longer a sacrament but it was, in Cranmer’s words, an ‘honourable estate’ and a ‘holy estate’.
Sexual feelings were no longer regarded as sinful. Few were called to celibacy and for those who were not, marriage was a positive good. Luther told a monk contemplating marriage:
‘This is the Word of God, though whose power procreative seed is planted in man’s body and a natural, ardent desire for woman is kindled and kept alive. This cannot be restrained by vows or by laws. For it is God’s doing’ (quoted Richard Mackenny, Sixteenth-Century Europe, Macmillan, 1993, 145).This celebration of sex in marriage may also be connected to the alarming spread of syphilis in this period; monogamy – ‘safe sex’ - seemed a better solution to the problem than an unrealistic prescription of celibacy.
The Strassburg reformer Martin Bucer, one of the first of the early Protestants to marry, asserted that the chief reason for marriage was companionship. In his Prayer Book, Thomas Cranmer, another married man, cited this as the third reason for matrimony (after procreation and the cure for lust) but it is remarkable that he should have given it at all. It was the first marriage liturgy in Christian history officially to say this. In Protestant sermons wives were celebrated as calm and experienced companions ready to give advice and comfort.
However this companionship was in a context of patriarchy. Protestants not only exalted marriage but male headship within it. The ideal Protestant father was the religious head of the family, leading prayers and reading the bible to his dependants. The family was to be the microcosm of the Church.
Some historians have argued that Protestantism involved a loss for women, as with the option of a religious life ruled out, marriage remained the only life choice. The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby reveals the opportunities, but also limitations, of the life of an Elizabethan woman. But it can also be argued that Catholic women lost out as there was a growing insistence on enclosure for nuns. Charismatic women were regularly disciplined by their (male) religious superiors. Angela Merici (1474-1540) had founded the Company of St Ursula, a group of lay single women and widows dedicated to the poor. This received papal authorization and later in the century became a religious order focusing increasingly on girls’ education. But once they became a religious order they came under increasing pressure to become cloistered nuns. They were allowed to continue teaching girls though mainly within the walls of the convent.
Teresa of Avila
See here and here.
The most celebrated religious woman of the period was Teresa of Ávila (1515-82). Her paternal grandfather was a conversos, a Jewish convert to Christianity. In 1535, at the age of nineteen she entered a convent of Carmelite nuns somewhat against her father’s wishes. Life in this convent was fairly relaxed and Teresa seems to have come and gone with considerable freedom. Following a period of depression and illness she achieved inner piece in 1554-5 and experienced mystical visions which she wrote down, using the imagery of a mystical marriage. She came into contact with the Jesuits, who had just established a college in Ávila, and they encouraged her in her wish to restore the primitive rule of the Carmelites. In 1562 she founded a convent for women in Ávila, St Joseph’s for her new order, the discalced (barefoot) Carmelites, in the face of considerable opposition from the town and from within the Carmelite order.
After five years, however, she obtained permission to found more convents. She extended her mission to men after meeting Juan de Yepes (John of the Cross) in 1567 when she came to Medina del Campo to found one of her convents. In 1568 he accepted her invitation to found the first male house to follow her principles. In 1571 she was appointed prioress of the convent in Avila and in the following year she appointed Juan as priest confessor to the community.
This combination of two powerful personalities a aroused the suspicion of many in the hierarchy. In 1577-8 Juan was imprisoned and tortured. He escaped but the experience intensified his mysticism and his book The Dark Night became a Christian classic. Teresa was only freed from persecution through the support of Philip II. In 1579 the process of the Inquisition was stopped and the order was officially recognized in 1580. Teresa herself attended to some eighteen foundations. Her final foundation was at Burgos in 1582.
After Teresa’s death a new (male) Provincial curtailed much of the order’s freedom of action and Juan was removed from his position within the General Chapter of the order.
However, Teresa was canonized in 1612. In 1618 Philip III persuaded the pope to designate her co-patron of Spain (along with Santiago) and she was proclaimed Spain’s national state in 1814. General Franco kept one of her hands permanently by his bedside.