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Building Unity, Sustaining Identity

[Full text] From: Handbook of European History 1400-1600, ed.T.A. Brady,HA Oberman and J.D.Tracey, Leiden 1955

© Brill Academic Publishers

HEINZ SCHILLING was born in 1942 in Bergneustadt, Rhineland. After studying history, German, philosophy and sociology in Cologne and Freiburg, he gained his doctorate in 1971 with Niederlaendische Exultaten im 16. Jahrhundert. Ihre Stellung im Socialgefuege und im religioesen Leben deutscher und englischer Staedte, Gueterslosh 1972. From 1971 to 1977 he was academic assistant in the faculty of history at the University of Bielefeld, where he gained his Habilitation with Konfessionskonflict und Staatsbildung in fruehneuzeitlichen Deutschland, Guetersloh 1981. From 1977 to 1982 he was professor of early modern history at the University of Giessen, from 1982 to 1992 professor at the University of Giessen, and since 1992 he has been professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

BETWEEN 1560 and 1650, Europe's history was shaped by what we call "confession", the modern variant of Christianity. A confession was defined by explicit statement of doctrine (Lat., confessio ), of which the most significant were: for Lutheranism, the Confession of Augsburg (1530) and the Book of Concord (1580); for the Reformed (Calvinist) confession, the Helvetic Confessions (1536, 1566), the Zurich Consensus (1549), and the canons of Dordrecht (1619); for Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer (1549) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563); and for Catholicism, the Council of Trent's doctrinal canons, especially the "Tridentine Profession of Faith [professio fidei tridentina]" of 1564 and certain papal statements. Based on their respective confessions of faith, the three great confessions (four, including Anglicanism) developed into internally coherent and externally exclusive communities distinct in institutions, membership, and belief. Each in its own way, their churches entered into alliances with the early modern states, the coercive power of which enhanced the churches' ability to manage religion, though with results that usually lagged far behind their aims. The confessions also formed a "balance-of-confessions" connected to the European balance-of-power that was forming in these same decades.

1. The Concept of Confessionalization .(1)

EUROPE housed other, non-confessional religious communities, notably the Anabaptists and other heirs of the radical reformation, and there were always counter-trends to orthodoxies within the confessional churches. Interconfessional contacts and extraconfessional movements nevertheless tended to be limited to private circles, at least until 1640 or so, when the process of deconfesionalization began to give them greater freedom. Beyond the Christian confessions vital Jewish communities existed in many European countries, though they, too, were isolated and deprived of any chance to influence the larger European societies of this era. (2)

The term "confessional Europe" for the era following the Reformation does not represent an idealist denigration of demographic, economic, political, and social factors in favor of theological or religious ones. On the contrary, the emphasis on ecclesiastical and religious structures and tendencies arises from reflections on the sociology of religion in premodern Europe in general and on the initial phase of European modernity in particular. They help us to overcome, on the one hand, the Marxists' demotion of religion to a mask for the real driving forces of history and, on the other, the idealist approach that has long dominated the humanities and theological studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead, we seek a historically accurate conception of the social effects of religion and the churches.

In the social constellation we call "premodern Europe," religion, especially in the structured form of a "confession", was a dominant element in a complex of factors, each of which can be considered --as in a medical syndrome-- both separately and in its interaction with the others. Whereas the modern understanding of religion and church holds them to be mere subordinate parts of a larger secular system, in those days they were considered central, load-bearing pillars of the entire social order. Accordingly, religious change was also social change, or, as the seventeenth-century German lawyers put it, "religion is the bond of society [religio vinculum societatis]."

This kind of structural-functional approach to religion and church offers us perspectives and possibilities for comparison and evaluation unmatched by either materialist or idealist approaches. It demonstrates, for example, how the history of confessional Europe meant in the long run a tremendous revolutionary shift. More importantly, it rejects the long dominant view of post-Reformation religious history as a mater of competition and mutual exclusion and emphasizes the confessions' structural and functional similarities rather than on the differences among them. The confessional hypothesis focuses both on the cultural, intellectual, social, and political functions of religion and confession within the early modern social order and on the confessions' roles as spurs and barriers to the emergence of modernity. These are two sides of the historical paradigm we call "confessionalization". It holds that the late sixteenth-century emergence of confessions was one of the key events in early modernization, because the doctrinal and organizational strengthening of the churches became a powerful prelude to political and social reorganization in the following era. The confessional churches lay at the center of this process. Although similar tendencies appeared among the sects, especially the Anabaptists, these lacked any positive connection to state-building and, hence, any larger social consequences.

The goal of our study of "confessional Europe" is thus a comprehensive analysis of society. Rather than deny the spiritual and theological differences that have for centuries occupied the historians, it asserts a new set of questions about motors of and barriers to the social changes that enabled Europe in time to exchange its "traditional" or "feudal" social system for a modern one based on citizenship and a market economy. The confessional paradigm thus pushes the discussion about transition into the early modern era, fixing on the decades around 1600 as the "warm-up time of modernity" (Vorsattelzeit der Moderne).(3)

This concept of the social role of religion lends historical depth to the concept of modernization, which, originally oriented to the present age alone, is now indispensable for the early modern era as well. Its deployment liberates our historical vision from the dominance of purely secular social and economic relations, however appropriate the latter may be for the recent era, and allows us to conceive of the early modern social order in terms of a sociology of religion that includes demographic, political, and economic, along with the social and social-psychological, connections. Religious change, conceived as social change, thus serves as a heuristic indicator for the secularizing forces within the entire process.

Two further characteristics of the era around 1600 suggest the special importance of "confessional Europe's" religion and churches. The first is the simultaneous secularizing and re-sacralizing tendencies produced by the Reformation itself. (4) Second, there is the simultaneity of confessionalization and the formation of the early modern state, which strove to construct a unified, disciplined society of subjects, either in an absolutist sense or in that of a society based on estates (Standestaat). The primary axis of social change thus ran right through the zone in which the concerns of church and state overlapped, where the secularizing forces, important as they were, were neither the exclusive nor even the primary driving elements.(5) The decisive force, on the contrary, was resacralization.(6) To sum up, the state sum up, the state became more sacral before it became more secular.

Three main categories are needed to describe "confessional Europe" from a bird's eye view: 1) the confessional churches themselves and their forms of religious mentality and practice; 2) state and society and their culture under the influence of confessionalism; and 3) the pre -or non-confessional forces, which, though in the background, later acquired decisive influence on the emergence of modern Europe. What follows is organized in these three categories.

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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