The Reformation - the Faith Divided

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By around 900, almost all of Europe had been converted to Christianity - however, most of Spain and Portugal had been conquered by Muslims in the 8th century.

Excluding Eastern Europe, where the Orthodox church dominated, the only recognized faith was that of Catholic Christianity. In reality, the Pope had both religious and political power. From the 11th century onwards in particular, kings and other rulers were groaning under the weight of the church's power, and this gradually brought about the break-up of Europe's political and religious landscape.

The Church's political power

The Papal Church was a force in Europe during the Middle Ages, but its power was not total. There was constant internal strife, and from time to time, there was even more than one pope. At one point, there was both one in Rome and one in France - and for a short time, even one in Pisa.

In northern Europe, there was a tradition of dealing with issues in society at a local governing assembly (known variously as a "ting", "thing" or "moot") made up of the free people of the community and it was also at these assemblies that the peasants chose their king. It is conceivable that some kings were no better than thugs who forced their election through by force, and there is little doubt that large farmers had more say than poor people. But there was no heredity, nor had it ever occurred to the Norsemen that a king could be divine. Without philosophising over it, people had a form of democracy in Scandinavia during the Iron Age - that is, from when the first large communities arose around 500 BCE up to the beginning of the Middle Ages in the Nordic region in the 11th century. The world's oldest surviving democracy is the Icelandic; according to tradition, its 'Alting' dates back to 930 CE.

The Christianisation of northern Europe from the 9th century onwards didn't change the form of government that was based on the "tings". However, technological and economic developments in the 11th century led to the emergence of a new middle class in craft and commerce, and significant differences arose between the peasants and the nobility. Society came to consist of four classes: nobility, clergy, burghers (i.e. town dwellers) and peasants. The interests of the four classes were very different, and gradually the burghers and the peasants were politically sidetracked, while the nobility and the clergy became the privileged classes, and kings, the nobility and the church fought over power.

The church was a major landowner, giving it a lot of power, and the church gave a new kind of legitimacy to the monarchy, in that St. Paul had said that "there is no authority except from God"; in other words, that the king was "king by the grace of God." On the other hand, the church was also of the opinion that, if the king was a tyrant, then the church could depose him.

The beginnings of a secular community founded on the rule of law

This was not enough however for an aristocracy which was demanding influence and, in 1215 in England, it led to the "Great Charter of the Liberties", the Magna Carta. The English nobles forced King John to sign the charter. Perhaps the most important article said: No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned, outlawed or exiled, or otherwise punished without the lawful judgement of his peers in accordance with the laws of the land.

Around 25% of men were freemen in England at the time: the nobility, the clergy, certain burghers and men in the king's service. It was a major innovation; the individual now had a degree of legal protection. Magna Carta also introduced the notion that new taxes could only be imposed after the convocation of a "great council" which was to approve such new taxes. This council gradually grew into a parliament and, from 1265, it also came to consist of people from the middle classes. In other European countries, the burgher class also got some influence from about the 13th century, because Estates of the Realm were created.

Europe's second oldest surviving democracy

In fact, one single statutory democracy already existed in the 13th century. Three Swiss cantons feared being incorporated into the Habsburg counties and therefore joined together in what is today known as "The Old Confederation." The confederation was ratified in 1291, and it is from this that their current direct democracy descends.

Papal authority weakened

The church was a major landowner in Europe and, in the late 13th century, the English king introduced taxation of the church in England. The Pope was unsuccessful in preventing this tax, and later the French king introduced a similar tax. It weakened the Pope's authority, thereby rocking the church's position of power, and gradually its theological authority also began to disintegrate.

Plague raged on several occasions from 1348 onwards and no matter how much the priests prayed to God, it didn't get the plague to go away. Instead, the nobility and the clergy were just as easy victims of the disease as the peasants were and this decreased their esteem significantly. The large numbers of deaths also brought about labour shortages. The peasants could now push wages up, while at the same time there were fewer mouths to feed. This increased both the standard of living and the self-confidence of the peasants. The plague undermined not only the clergy's credibility but also the whole structure of society and the nobility's power over the peasants. The peasants, who saw their kings as their protectors, sensed the dawn of better things and in the 14th-16th centuries, there were numerous peasant revolts in several places in Europe.

However, they were all defeated by the nobility, thereby creating an alliance between the king, the peasants and the burghers in many places. The church did what it could to hold on to its power over all the groups, largely through the threat of eternal damnation. This could however be mitigated by buying indulgences, a practice which transferred a significant amount of wealth from every other class to the church.

This in turn led to the church losing its credibility and to widespread desires being expressed to reform the church from within. The church though was not interested in letting itself be reformed. Instead, the Reformation was instigated by the monk Martin Luther putting forward ​​95 critical theses of the Pope in 1517. According to legend, he nailed the 95 theses up on the church door, but the story apparently has little foundation in truth.

The Reformation and Protestantism

Luther (1483-1546) broke with the papal church on two essential points: in relation to the individual, and in relation to kings.

According to Luther's theology, the individual is in direct contact with God; there is no intermediary between the individual and God, either in the form of priests, popes or saints. He therefore placed the individual at the centre, instead of the church. On the other hand, he removed any influence on one's own salvation from the individual and declared that human beings were incapacitated in a religious context because everything depends on the grace of God, and there is nothing anyone can do to obtain this grace - it is bestowed gratuitously. Another reformer, John Calvin (1509-1569), took the next step and invented the doctrine of predestination, which says that the individual's entire life is predestined by God.

With regard to kings, Luther based his teaching on St. Paul's "doctrine of the two kingdoms": there is the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the earthly realm, secular law and the king's power applies. The heavenly power is only concerned with the soul and its salvation, and therefore the church shall not exercise secular power. Kings are thus not subject to the church, but legislate and rule independently of it. On the other hand, kings have received their power directly from God and thus to rebel against the king is to rebel against God. When another peasant revolt broke out in 1525, Luther therefore thundered against it and promised the peasants hell-fire and damnation if they did not obey those in power.

Because Luther and Calvin's new ideas were a protest against the existing papal church, the new forms of Christianity got the common term "Protestantism".

The political consequences of The Reformation

The Reformation therefore led to temporal power being snatched from the grasp of the church, to church property being confiscated by kings and to the power of the papal church being undermined. But the Reformation was also the direct cause of absolute monarchy and thereby a total farewell to the North European tradition of participation by the people at the assemblies where the people themselves used to elect their king.

Taking a longer term view though, it led towards the democratisation of Europe some centuries later. The disagreement among Christians between the Catholic Church and Protestants led to the Thirty Years' War across most of Europe, political chaos for more than 100 years and a mutual fear of each other between the religious groups. These fears forced the parties to demand mutual tolerance. The "Peace of Westphalia" that ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648 decreed that kings were allowed to decide the faith of their kingdom, and that Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists who lived in areas where their faith was not the official one got religious freedom.


It is Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms that is the protestant argument for Protestantism being a specific prerequisite for democracy, because the church itself thereby makes it clear once for all that it has no authority to determine the laws of society; its domain is restricted to taking care of the salvation of the soul.

It is a correct observation that Protestantism in theory could have a "democratic advantage", but only when comparing to other monotheistic countries. Democracy had already existed before monotheism, in Greece and in some Nordic countries, and in effect Protestantism led directly to absolute monarchy. Moreover, direct democracy arose in Switzerland under Catholicism, not Protestantism.

A much more significant factor on Europe's road towards new power structures and democracy lies in the fact that so many actors were vying for power at the same time. Various religious denominations, kings, nobles, burghers and peasants were in constant conflict with each other and, in this battle, no single group ever managed to achieve absolute power. The absolute monarchs came close - as the term implies - but they could only hold on to power through constant intrigues, wars and use of violence.

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