Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

The context for this discussion is the crisis that gripped Europe around 1600. (7) The crisis was climatic, coinciding with the depth of the “Little Ice Age,” when colder, wetter winters, drove down harvests and led to recession of vegetation in marginal areas. (8).The crisis was also demographic, for by 1600 the sixteenth-century population growth turned to stagnation and decline: more deeply in southern and central Europe, less deeply in England and Scandinavia, and hardly at all in the Dutch Republic. (9) The economic situation was complicated and regionally diverse, though in general it can be said that the “commercial revolution” of the sixteenth century was coming to an end. (10) The shift of major trade movements from the north-south routes (between northern and central Europe and the Levant via Italy) to east-west ones (from Russia and the Baltic through the Netherlands to Spain and the Americas) was now complete, and the most active centers of trade and production had shifted from Italy, southern France, and South Germany to the Atlantic rim, the Netherlands and later England. As western Europe grew ever more dependent on Baltic grain, unemployment, falling real wages, and inadequate food supplies plunged urban industry into a decisive structural crisis around 1600. While luxury goods continued to come from highly skilled guildsmen in the old urban centers, craft production began to shift to a “proto-industrial” rural sector based in households. (11)

The coincidence of these demographic and socio-economic problems with collective and individual feelings of insecurity gave rise to the psychological anxieties that marked the end of sixteenth century. (12) These feelings found relief in expectations of the end of the world, which spread among the political and cultural elites as eschatological or chiliastic views of history, among the masses as astrology and belief in portents and prodigies. The most extreme consequences of anxiety were the persecution of witches and heretics, the waves of violence against the Jews and others, depredation by mercenary soldiers, and waves of protest, mainly in the countryside. Actions against those allegedly responsible for contemporary evils were often connected with interpretations of the age and its portents, as a veritable flood of pamphlets -equal in size to that of the 1520s- fed public discussion. Whereas formerly the discussion had centered on the right to salvation and the character of the true church, this time it focused on the consequences for the world if the victory lay with the true or the false faith, with the followers of Christ or those of Antichrist. This discourse was thoroughly international. (13)

The anxiety of the times took various forms in different areas of Europe: in Spain the autos da fe organized by the Inquisition; in southern Italy the anti-Spanish insurrection inspired by the Joachite millenarianism of Tomaso Campanella (1568-1639); in France the massacres of the Religious Wars; in England and in the Netherlands the Calvinist polemics against the Spanish Antichrist; in Switzerland the socio-confessional conflicts in Appenzell, the Valais, Graubunden, and the Valtellina; in Sweden the bitter struggles of the Lutheran nobles and the bishops against the Crown’s Calvinizing and Catholicizing tendencies; in Bohemia the deeply anti-Catholic insurrection of the estates against the Habsburgs; and finally in revolts of German-speaking burglers in Poland against spread of Calvinism. The international public discourse of the separate confessions placed each of these disturbances -but particularly the rise of the Jesuits since the 1540s, St. Bartolomew’s Day (1577), and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)- in a Europe-wide context. (14). These events tended to push anxiety to extreme heights in Central Europe, where the ideological and political fronts coincided. (15) After all the political and legal tools of compromise failed and as the wars dragged on, the physical struggle for daily life overcame anxieties about the future.

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