Development Of The Reformation Thoughts In Western Europe In The 15th And 16th Centuries

Around the year 1400, The Hundred Years’ War was at a period of peace and the internal strifes in England and France were well underway. Terribly blown by the great plague, the European population was slowly on the rise though frequently halted by devastating warfare and intermittent small plagues. The humanist successors of Petrarca were emerging in Italy and the universities were slowly expanding in numbers. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe was to experience several important cultural and intellectual developments, which include the fragmentation of religious views, the emergence of Humanism and an enlarged and enriched knowledge on the world. The religious views of Europeans fragmented during the two centuries. The medieval Catholic Church generally did not tolerate religious views different from the Catholic orthodoxy view, the Cathars and the Waldensians were the best examples to illustrate this, after being declared heretics, they were persecuted intensively, the Cathars even being subjected to a crusade.

In the late 14th century and early 15th century, there were also examples of religious views deviated from Catholic orthodoxy view, emphasizing the religious experience of oneself. John Wycliffe was a prominent one of these dissidents, he criticized the papal court and advocated for the Scripture being the only reliable guide to piety. Wycliffe led the translation of the Bible into English, the vernacular, later the translation was to be widely diffused, his teachings were to lead to the Lollard Movement. And there was Jan Hus, hugely influenced by Wycliffe’s thoughts, he spread his religious views in Bohemia, which led to the Bohemian Reformation and the Hussite Wars posthumously. Their religious views were to influence later reformers like Martin Luther. Luther, strongly inspired by his personal spiritual experience, advocated for the Bible being the only source of religious authority too and the salvation being only possible depending on one’s faith, instead of deeds, which included buying the indulgences. Luther was not actually an anti-papist at first, he only became fully confrontative against the pope after the first debates. His reformation was made endurable by lay magnates tolerating or supporting the Lutheran doctrines such as Frederick the Wise who sheltered Luther and allowed Lutheran preachings, these lay magnates’ support prevented the Habsburg emperors from putting down the reformation. Besides Luther, there were other reformers such as Zwingli and Calvin who also led endurable reformations in other areas.

The reformation thoughts were widely diffused throughout Western Europe in the 16th century, several states, such as Sweden and Denmark converted to Lutheranism or other confessions, while other states like France stayed attached to Catholicism, fostering religion turmoils like the French wars of religion. In the Empire, a stalemate was achieved because of the Habsburg emperors’ powerlessness caused by affairs in other areas such as the war in Hungary, Croatia, and Mediterranean against the Ottoman Empire and hostilities with the French Kings. The enduring religious conflicts in the Holy Roman Empire finally led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, the war ended up with both sides’ compromise after thirty years of war in the Peace of Westphalia which promised the somehow religious freedom. The Westphalia treaties, together with other acts of toleration in other states like the United Provinces of the Netherlands and France after Henri IV, made the religious view in Europe formally fragmented. Europe also witnessed the emergence of Humanism during the two centuries we may call Renaissance.

Humanism, a controversial word for its definition, can mean the rise of the studia humanitatis in the eyes of Pope Nicholas V in the 1430s, which includes grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy, and can also mean a symbol of a growing individualism if we follow a Burckhardtian view. Starting from Petrarca who coined the “Dark Ages” to indicate the period we usually called the Middle Ages, there emerged these humanist scholars or intellectuals who upheld the value of the classic authors like Cicero and Plutarchus and more or less despised medieval Latin. But does that mean we could summarize the renaissance thoughts to be anti-“medieval” and a different philosophy about men? According to Kristeller, we can’t, for that Renaissance thought, from 1350-1600, presents a very complex image, and there were a great variety of views on different questions. However, also according to Kristeller, we could say one thing for sure that Renaissance thought was more “human” and more secular, though not necessarily less religious. Besides, Europe’s knowledge on other “worlds” enlarged substantially.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Western Europeans could basically only learn knowledge about Asia through few travelers like Marco Polo. However, starting from the early 15th century, the Portuguese started to explore the vast coast of Africa. They reached Southern and Eastern African coasts in the late 15th century, reached India in the early 16th century and reached Southeastern Asia and Eastern Asia in about the same time. The Portuguese, doing commercial activities, establishing stands, and recording local situations, enhanced Europeans’ knowledge on Africa and Asia considerably. Besides, starting from the late 15th century, the Castillians also started their explorations west. In 1492, during that famous voyage sponsored by the Spanish crown, Columbus “discovered” America, paving the way for an explosion of Europeans’ knowledge on the Americas. Columbus’ voyages were followed by other explorers and adventurers, who would more or less violently enlarge the European influence in the Americas, and brought knowledge about the new world into the Spanish world like the numerous publications on the New Worlds in 16th centuries, enhancing Europeans’ knowledge on the Americas. This knowledge would mold the next generations’ view of the world they lived in.

To conclude, what developed in the two centuries for Europeans? 17th century Europeans felt living in a substantially larger and more interconnected world than their 14th century ancestors for their much more enriched knowledge on other regions, and in their world it was no longer largely filled with a dominant religious discourse, the reformation led by Luther and other reformers succeeded in staying on the stage, diversifying religious discourses, also, their world became more secular and had more concern on men.

14 May 2021
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