Social Effects of the Reformation

Although the Reformation is styled as a religious reaction against corruption and abuse within the Catholic Church, it reflected profound changes within European society itself. The Reformation itself was affected by the invention of the Printing Press and the expansion of commerce which characterized the Renaissance. Both Reformations, both Protestant and Catholic affected print culture, education, popular rituals and culture, and the role of women in society. Even a new style of art, the Baroque, was a byproduct.

Print Culture: Although the printing press was not the efficient cause of the Reformation, it was an effective tool in spreading it. As many as one million copies of Luther’s works were distributed, which allowed them to saturate the reading German public. Luther’s German translation of the Bible went through fifty printings in two years. He wrote 450 treatises and delivered more than 3,000 sermons. His collected works comprise more than 100 volumes and 60,000 pages. Said one papal legate in 1521: "daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin….nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther." A substantial amount of Luther’s work was dedicated to lay people and was printed in the vernacular, German, rather than Latin.

An explosive increase in literacy among laymen also benefited the reformation movement. Both Luther and Calvin stressed education and that people should study the scripture for themselves, rather than depend upon a clergyman to interpret it for them.

Both Protestants and Catholics attempted to influence the thinking of readers by discretely editing written works. A small work of literature written in German and published in 1621 told the story of St. George and the dragon. It was edited by both Catholics and Protestants: the Catholics left out the dragon, while the Protestants eliminated St. George.

Popular Culture: Popular custom of the time often involved a mixture of religious and pagan practices. Superstition was common, as was the belief in luck. Magic and religion were closely intertwined.

Both Catholics and Protestants attempted to curb customs which they considered immoral or dangerous. Protestants particularly objected to dunking an infant three times for luck when he was baptized. Catholic authorities in France banned a popular dance known as the "twirl" in 1666 in which boys tossed girls into the air. Church officials complained that this was done "in such an infamous manner that what shame obliges us to hide most of all is uncovered naked to the eyes of those taking part and those passing by."

Festivals and Carnivals raised fierce objections, particularly among Protestants. Carnivals were obliterated in Protestant areas, but continued in Catholic regions. A classic example of the carnival is Mardi Gras, ("fat Tuesday") celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, when the advent of Lent puts an end to everyone’s fun for a while.

Women and the Reformation: Protestantism abolished convents and nunneries, and women were encouraged to read and study the Bible for themselves. Women were particularly active in Anabaptism; in fact most Anabaptist martyrs were women. Even so, Protestant reformers believed that women should remain subordinate to their husbands, or their fathers if unmarried. Calvin believed the subservience of women to their husbands was absolutely necessary to maintain morality and order. V  They were not to be ministers or hold church offices. Protestantism projected a woman’s role as strictly domestic’ she was to act within her own household, but not publicly.

Protestantism tended to be more positive about the role of women than Catholicism, as Protestantism allowed its ministers to marry. The family, not the church, was thus viewed as the foundation of religion. Since Protestantism did not consider marriage a sacrament, divorce was allowed, albeit reluctantly. Luther frequently argued against it, and criticized Henry VIII for divorcing Catherine of Aragon; although this may have been a bit of payback for Henry’s treatise opposing Luther before the formers break with the church.

Witchcraft: The religious wars which accompanied the Reformation saw a dramatic increase in European witch hunts. Many historians believe this to be a commentary on the general attitude towards woman at the time.

Many people in Europe believed they lived in a world in which supernatural forces were constantly at work. Some worked for good, while others worked for evil. If God could act in history, so could Satan. Witchcraft, believed to be a dangerous mixture of heresy and sorcery (the magical power to perform evil through rituals and formulas) was part of this superstition. Witches were believed to have made a pact with the devil to deny God in return for which Satan gave them the power to cause human illness, misfortune, or even death. Witchcraft was blamed for the death of animals or humans, failure of a cow to give milk, bad weather, infertility, blindness, even impotence. Those suspected of being witches tended to have the same characteristics. They were primarily old women (although some were men), practiced midwifery or folk medicine, had pockmarked skin and were typically aged, often bent over from arthritis. Most were between ages fifty to seventy. They also tended to be ill tempered and sharp tongued.

Persecutions for witchcraft predated Christianity. For years, tales had circulated about old women who made nocturnal travels on greased broomsticks to assemblies of witches, known as sabbats. While attending the sabbat, they engaged in sexual orgies and dined on the flesh of newborn babies. Belief in witchcraft was not confined to the lower classes. Chief Justice Coke of England once defined a witch as "a person who hath conference with the Devil to consult with him or to do some act."

The Law Code of 1532 made witchcraft a capital offense; punishable by death; but witch trials in large numbers did not become prevalent until the end of the sixteenth century. For decades, Catholics and Protestants were too busy fighting with each other to bother with witches. However, as Europe continued to be troubled with periodic famines, inflation, and social tension, the temptation to use accused witches as scapegoats proved impossible to resist.

The great European witch hunt originated with Pope Innocent VIII (r.1484-1492) who believed a witch had cast a spell upon him which left him impotent. He commissioned two Dominican friars, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer to draw up the first comprehensive written work on witchcraft and demonology. A portion of Innocent’s Bull:

The book they wrote was the infamous Malleus Malificarum ("Hammer of Evil," often translated "Hammer of Witches.") published in 1486. It became the definitive authority on identifying witches and acts of witchcraft. The Malleus is laced with misogyny, and, according to one author, "sums up much of the worst in Western thought about women. The following quote from the Malleus is indicative.

Woman is more carnal than man….She always deceives….What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors….To conclude, all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.

The majority of witch trials took place within the Holy Roman Empire with France a close second. Bohemia, Poland, and Switzerland also saw large numbers of witch trials. There were few trials for witchcraft in Britain, Scandinavia, Spain or Italy, although as many as 1,000 people were executed in England for witchcraft between 1559 and 1736. . An estimated 50, 000 to 75,000 people were put to death as witches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some estimates for the entire life of the Witch craze place the number at over one million. The overwhelming majority of those accused were women. Witch hunts became something of a crazed mania. Those who argued that the hunts were frauds and that those accused were merely harmless confused old women were themselves accused as witches. After all, why would one defend a witch if one were not a witch also?

Those accused were often subjected to torture as a means of securing a confession. A male convicted of witchcraft in 1628 wrote his daughter: "I confessed in order to escape the great anguish and bitter torture which it was impossible for me to bear longer." A woman accused in France was "scorched like a pig" and cooked alive because she had been accused of spreading an "evil powder" while committing other crimes.

Women were primarily the targets because they were the carriers of popular culture. They were the story tellers, healers, and were almost always uneducated. They were the guardians of tradition and were "the source of all sin."

The persecution of women as witches was not without its critics. One of the most famous was the essayist and swordsman, Cyrano de Bergerac, often remembered for his prodigious nose (he himself said it preceded his body by half an hour.) Bergerac wrote: "No I do not believe in witches, even though several important people do not agree with me, and I defer to no man’s authority unless it is accompanied by reason and comes from God." Most of those who were accused he found to be "crack-brained shepherds and ignorant peasants."

Over time, skepticism of the power of witches grew. Educated people increasingly began to seek natural explanations for things which had previously been considered to be of supernatural origin. Courts demanded more substantial evidence of evil deeds and pacts with the devil. The use of torture was discounted. There was also some wonder why secular courts were dealing with issues which properly were the province of the church. As economic conditions in Europe improved by the end of the seventeenth century, prosecutions for witchcraft fell off rapidly. In 1682, King Louis XIV issued an edict that effectively ended them in France. This was the same year that the last accused witch was executed in England. The belief in the powers of the devil and witches persisted in the minds of Europeans, especially those in the working classes; but those in power no longer were so eager to prosecute suspected witches. As a result, witch trials declined dramatically.

Baroque Style: The Catholic Reformation represented a certain degree of flamboyance and theatrical religiosity. It was complemented by a new style of art known as the Baroque, from an old French word meaning "irregularly shaped pear." The Catholic Church remained a major patron of the arts and often sponsored works of art which represented religious themes. The goal of this artistic expression was to overwhelm the emotions through awe-inspiring dimensions, opulence, movement, and lurid color. Baroque style emphasized the metaphysical side of humanity, seeking to express the experience of the soul. Baroque palaces and churches featured exuberant curves and ornate decoration and were cluttered with lustrous marble altars, ornate statues, ornate statues, golden cherubs, and intensely colorful murals and ceiling paintings. It merged very easily with neo-classicism—a revival of architecture dominated with Greek and Roman style.

Baroque sculpture is best represented by the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).He constructed the piazza outside the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the canopy over the high altar. His most famous work is the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.

Legacy of the Reformation: Only Ireland remained unaffected by the Reformation. Reformation thinking generated a strong missionary impulse among Protestants and Catholics alike. With the expansion of European influence to Asia and the Americas, reformation influences, particularly Jesuit influence, traveled to remote areas where Christianity had previously been unknown.

Although the Catholic Church had exercised considerable control in Europe prior to the Renaissance, in France and Spain the Church became secondary to the authority of the monarch. Also, Protestants advocated a separation of church and state, what Luther called the "realm of the spirit" and the "realm of the world." Politics in Lutheran countries remained secularized. In fact, Lutheranism became the state religion in many parts of Germany and Scandinavia as a means of resistance against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Calvinism alone made separation a matter of law.

Lutheran and Calvinist areas were not necessarily more tolerant than had been the Catholics. Some German princes declared church attendance was mandatory, punishing those who did not attend. Both persecuted Anabaptists mercilessly. Calvin’s people made it a point to drown them in Lake Geneva.

The Peace of Augsburg and Council of Trent did not end rivalry in Europe between Protestants and Catholics, or even the rivalry between different Protestant sects, as is illustrated by the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century.