The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation

views updated


Ronnie Po-chia Hsia

Traditionally interpreted as the watershed of western Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, together with the Renaissance, had been seen by many scholars as harbingers of a modern age. This classic paradigm, established on the authority of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, R. H. Tawney, and Max Weber in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, held sway until the 1970s. Since then, the social history of the Protestant Reformation and of early modern Catholicism has developed away from this stark contrast between traditional, static Catholicism and innovative, modern-looking Protestantism. Historians in particular are increasingly seeing the period from 1500 to 1750 as forming a long duration of historical change, with similar and common social and cultural impact on both Protestant and Catholic Europe.


In Capital, Marx locates the sixteenth century as the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism. The Protestant Reformation, by loosening the "shackles of the medieval Church," contributed in general to progress in history. However, Marx was interested in the Reformation only in connection with his general theory of history; it was Engels who elaborated a paradigm for a more detailed social interpretation of the German Reformation. Relying heavily on a book on the 1525 German Peasants' War by Friedrich Zimmerman, a left-wing Hegelian active in 1848, Engels emphasized that the German Reformation transcended theological and religious reforms. The central action of the Reformation, according to Engels, was the uprising of peasants and townsmen in 1525. They pushed ahead a program of social revolution aimed at the total transformation of feudal society. Providing the ideological support for this social revolution were radical preachers, including Thomas Müntzer, who assumed the role of a prescient revolutionary. In this interpretation, Luther emerged in a relatively negative light, for although he challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, in the end he turned against the social revolution of the plebeian masses and sided with the princes and ruling class in upholding the social and political order.

This socialist interpretation of the Reformation went largely unnoticed among professional historians of the Reformation in Germany for whom the dominant modes of interpretation remained theological and political. In France Marxist views attracted primarily economic historians of the sixteenth century like Henri Hauser, who argued that the Calvinist Reformation in France represented a bourgeois challenge to a Catholic feudal order. In Britain this Marxist view found an echo in the work of the socialist Ernest Belfort Bax, who introduced Engels's study of the Peasants' War and the Anabaptist movement to the English-speaking world.

Max Weber injected another element into the social interpretation of the Reformation. Impressed by the affinities between the asceticism and self-discipline in Calvinist theology and the work discipline manifest in capitalism, Weber postulated, in a now famous essay, the relationship between a Protestant ethic of asceticism and a spirit of denial that allowed for capitalist accumulation. Formulated as part of his grand schema in sketching the relationship between religious cultures and social modalities, Weber's thesis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism has a twofold significance: first, it reverses the order of importance between ideology/ideas and social/material structures as argued by Marx; and second, it affirms the centrality of the Protestant Reformation in articulating a modern Weltanschauung (worldview)—rational, ordered, disciplined, disenchanted from the religious spirit of the Middle Ages. Weber's thesis met with a spirited critique from the British socialist R. H. Tawney, who argued primarily from English examples that a capitalist spirit of greed and accumulation predated the Reformation, implying that an ideological basis was a preexisting condition for the Reformation. Tawney's contribution extended the scope of the discussion beyond central Europe and suggested the importance of cross-national comparisons in the social history of the Reformation.

The impact of Marx and Weber was much more evident in the social sciences than in history, especially in the study of historical sociology, an approach heavily Weberian in methodology. Until the 1970s the practice of social theory among historians of the Reformation was largely limited to Marxists. The establishment of the German Democratic Republic created the institutional basis for the further elaboration of the Marx-Engels thesis of the Reformation. Coining the term "early bourgeois revolution," East German historians published a whole series of studies in the 1960s and 1970s on the social character of the Reformation. Collectively, these historians argued for seeing the German Reformation, symbolized by the revolutionary year 1525, as the first stage in a long challenge to feudal society by the bourgeoisie, succeeding eventually in 1789 in overthrowing traditional order. In this vision the German Reformation represented an "early bourgeois revolution," to be succeeded by the more successful examples of the English and Dutch revolutions of the seventeenth and the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth centuries. The failure of the German proletariat-peasant alliance was due to the treason of the bourgeoisie (namely Luther and the conservative forces of reform) and its collaboration with the feudal ruling class in suppressing this revolution.

Rejected on the whole by western historians, and often theoretically heavy-handed, the thesis of an early bourgeois revolution nonetheless made a substantial contribution: by offering a clear periodization and a unified interpretation of the years 1476 to 1535, it draws in diverse topics of research hitherto treated in isolation—peasant revolts, millenarian movements, Martin Luther, the evangelical movement, the rise of Anabaptism, and so forth. The thesis of "early bourgeois revolution"challenged non-Marxist historians to find alternative models to explain the relationship between ideas and social movements in the Reformation. Moreover, by giving the radical reformers and the Anabaptist movement a central place in the interpretation of the Reformation, Marxist scholarship served as a refreshing antidote to the hegemony of Luther-scholarship in Reformation studies, that had tended to relegate dissident reform and sectarian movements to the fringes.


The dominant mode of interpretation—the Reformation originating in Luther's theology and presaging modernity—came under assault not only from Marxist interpretation. In intellectual history the trend shifted from stressing Luther's modernity to his indebtedness to late medieval scholastic philosophy and mysticism, an interpretive move represented primarily by Heiko Oberman and his students. Thus Luther appeared less "a modern man" than a Christian of his time, steeped in beliefs of the devil and the supernatural. This undermining of Reformation's modernity came also from historians of Catholic background, who have long objected to the unequal treatment of the Protestant and Catholic sides of the religious experience of early modern Europe.

Objecting to the equation of Protestant modernity and Catholic backwardness, isolated voices called for a reinterpretation in the late 1960s. A pioneer historian of Catholic Europe, Henry Outram Evennett objected to "dealing [with] the concept of the Counter-Reformation as essentially 'reactionary' and backward-looking." He and others were dealing with deeply entrenched images of Catholicism propped up by the violence of Spanish arms and the repression of the Inquisition, of a Catholic Church suppressing liberty of conscience and crushing dissent.

By the 1970s there was considerable interest in rewriting the history of Catholicism in the early modern period, a development that paralleled a growing interest in the social history of the Reformation. That latter interest was already sparked by a 1962 landmark essay, "Imperial Cities and the Reformation," by the German Reformation specialist Bernd Moeller. Sensing a fundamental difference between the theology of reformers in south Germany and the Swiss Confederation—such as Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli—and that of Luther, Moeller argues that the experience of communal living in politically autonomous cities (namely, the imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire) shaped the citizens' response to and adaptation of Luther's message of religious reform. Slowly, Moeller's ideas attracted the attention of historians in Germany and in the English-speaking world. A series of monographs published in the 1970s and 1980s furnished case studies to test his hypothesis in greater detail. This internal development of Reformation scholarship vastly enriched the field, bringing to it a variety of approaches and interpretations after toppling the hegemonic discourse of Protestant modernity. Four distinct approaches in the social and cultural interpretation of Protestantism and Catholicism in early modern Europe have emerged since the 1970s. These approaches may be described by the short-hand labels "communalism," "social discipline," "Catholic modernity," and "dechristianization."


The concept of the Reformation as a "communal Reformation" (Gemeindereformation) is associated with the German historian Peter Blickle and his students. The fundamental thesis of "communal Reformation" is to argue that the religious reforms of the early sixteenth century originated not only, or perhaps not even primarily, from the top—that is, from reformers and intellectuals—but from the bottom, from the common man—that is, the politically enfranchised peasants and townsmen represented in village and urban communes. One recognizes here an echo of Moeller's thesis of "Imperial Cities and the Reformation," but the origin of "communal Reformation" lies in a long tradition of German social and institutional history. The commune—a juridical, institutional, political, and social construct—shaped the experiences, visions, and actions of the common man, according to this argument. Embedded in oral traditions of rights, rural and urban charters, protest movements, and sometimes political representation in territorial estates, the political rights of commoners were very important in southwest Germany and Switzerland. Used to governing their daily affairs and unafraid to contest the impingement of those rights by feudal lords and territorial officials, the common men shaped the demands of religious reform according to their political and social experiences. Blickle and his students have revealed a high degree of popular participation in religious life prior to the Reformation, in the form of endowment of chantries, charities, and other pious foundations, not only in the numerous towns in this part of the Holy Roman Empire, but also in the village-communes.

It was thus not an accident that the center of unrest in 1525 lay in this region; it was also self-evident that the political, economic, and religious demands of the Revolution of 1525, as Blickle calls the Peasants' War, should be entirely intertwined. What the peasants and townspeople demanded, in the early years of the reform movement, was not less religion, but more; specifically, they wanted a clergy responsive to their spiritual needs and responsible to the communes. Although defeated in 1525, the political power of the common man was not vanquished, for south Germany remained the arena of peasant unrest into the early nineteenth century.

In the Swiss Confederation by contrast, the communal Reformation triumphed. In the Protestant German-speaking cantons religious reforms were enacted not contrary to but in conjunction with popular demands for greater social discipline and moral conformity. Influenced by the thesis of communal Reformation, Heinrich R. Schmidt, a student of Blickle, argues with the example of the moral court (Sittengericht) of Bern that a strict disciplinary reform of morals and religious practices was in conformity with the wishes of the common men. The criminalization of sin therefore represented both an act of self-discipline by the politically represented members of communes and an act of repression against the propertyless and unruly elements of rural society.

By arguing for the importance of the common man as an antithesis to the hegemony of the state, Blickle and his students opened up an original and suggestive interpretation for understanding the German Reformation and the development of early modern history in central Europe. The concept of communal Reformation, however, is not without its critics. Some pointed out the exclusion of women, landless cottagers, Jews, youth, and other politically disenfranchised groups in rural society. Others countered that the commune, in certain areas of the Swiss Confederation such as the Grison, had acted as an obstacle to the Protestant Reformation. Above all, the validity of this concept seems limited to a region coterminous with south Germany and Switzerland. One critic objected that the communal Reformation does not work as a concept to explain the Reformation in northern Germany, where the territorial state played a much more interventionist mode, let alone in France or eastern Europe.


The concept of "social discipline" traces its origins to the 1960s. The German historian Gerhard Oestreich introduced this concept to describe several changes in early modern Europe: namely, the emergence of neostoicism as a life philosophy (for prominent scholars such as Justus Lipsius) and as a philosophy of state (for Calvinist Brandenburg-Prussia and the Netherlands). In these Calvinist territories, neostoicism served to elevate the authority of the prince; military reform, state building, and church discipline went hand-in-hand. According to Oestreich, the rise of absolutism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the creation of powerful military states, such as Prussia, rest upon this foundation of "social disciplining," by which the people became obedient, pious, and diligent subjects of their princes.

Two German historians, Heinz Schilling and Wolfgang Reinhard, later applied this concept, adapted retroactively to the sixteenth century, to the study of confessional societies formed as a result of the Reformation. They speak of the concept of "confessionalization," thus underlining the process of changes that involved the religious, political, cultural, and social structures of early modern Germany. This argument has a threefold implication: first, it points to the structural parallelism between Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic societies, with all manifesting "modern" traits of greater state and social coercion and self-disciplining; second, it argues that confessionalization created social groups, "the three confessions," by a variety of means, including the formulation of dogma, confessional propaganda, education, discipline, rituals, and religious language; and third, that confessionalization strengthened political centralization when the early modern state used religion to consolidate its territorial boundary, to incorporate the church into the state bureaucracy, and to impose social control on its subjects.

As a concept, social discipline has an appeal of universality. Developed out of German case studies, it was accepted, modified, and applied to studies in the Netherlands, France, and Italy. Above all, social discipline attempts to unite political history with social history by refocusing attention on the state as a major force that shaped social and religious contours. Its universality also stems from its emphasis on structures, almost to the point of effacing the differences between the different Christian confessions, according to some critics. It offers nevertheless a provocative, unified theory in place of the Marxist "early bourgeois revolution" to describe the synchronicity of political, social, and religious changes in early modern Europe.

While the theory of social discipline further refined its argument in the specific cases of Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic societies, its initial formulation was modified by a more nuanced dialectic between state intervention and social resistance. Critics of this approach emphasized the ever present importance of popular resistance to confessionalization and social discipline imposed by the state. The debate revived, in some measure, an interest in Max Weber, which seemed to have all but disappeared between the publication of his essay in 1905 and the 1960s. By focusing on the role played by Calvinist states (the Netherlands, Brandenburg-Prussia) in a perhaps enforced modernization, the theory of social discipline influenced late-twentieth-century work in historical sociology as well.


The question of modernity, central to Weber's original investigation, also underpins an ongoing reevaluation of the relationship between the Protestant Reformation and early modern Catholicism. As mentioned above, by the 1970s there was considerable interest in rewriting the history of early modern Catholicism, in recasting the stereotypes of a repressive Counter-Reformation and a modernizing Reformation. A major departure was in chronology. Whereas scholarship on the Reformation concentrates on the period 1517 to 1559, the diversity and multiplicity of historical currents linked to Catholic resurgence clearly cannot be captured within this narrow periodization. Both ends of this time frame were being stretched: while the American historian John C. Olin pushed back the origins of reform within the Catholic Church to late-fifteenth-century Spain and Italy, German and French historians were extending their vision forward to the eighteenth century. The new approach in German Catholic scholarship was not so much to contest the term "Counter-Reformation" as to elevate it to a par with "Reformation." A landmark essay by Wolfgang Reinhard in 1977 rejects the antithesis of "progressive Reformation" and "reactionary Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reform" as inadequate concepts in understanding the totality of historical development. Reinhard, in fact, argues for the modernity of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, locating its modern characteristics in its disciplinary and Christianizing measures, its reforms of Church government, its undermining of kinship in favor of social control and a greater individualism, its emphasis on internalization of values and activism, its extension of European Christianity to the non-European world, and in its creation of a new pedagogic system, new political themes, and a new ethos of political economy.

Other scholars see a similar modernity in early modern Catholicism. The German historian Ernst Walter Zeeden highlights the structural parallels between Calvinism and the Counter-Reformation, while the British historian John Bossy, in a series of studies on Catholic rituals and kinship, demonstrates just how different early modern Catholicism was in comparison with the Christianity of Europe during the Middle Ages. By contrasting a pre-Tridentine Christianity based on the natural allegiances of late medieval society—kinship, friendship, and locality—to one organized theologically and administratively from above by the official, centralizing Church, Bossy's research suggests interesting ways in which the period from 1500 to 1800 witnessed similar and general changes in all of Europe, Protestant and Catholic.

In extending early modern Catholicism beyond the Council of Trent, scholarship of the late 1990s points to the significance of Catholic missions and the encounter between European and non-European civilizations. This shift reflects a greater recognition that any history of Christianization in Europe—the subject matter of popular religion and the social history of Catholicism—would be enriched by a cultural history of Catholic missions. The Catholic world, floating as it were on the seaborne empires of Spain and Portugal, early acquired a world-historical dimension, in contrast to Protestant Europe and its late organization in the mission field.


The fourth general approach, one that characterized French and Italian scholarship, may be described as the structural investigation into the sociology and mentality of religion. Confessional conflicts between Catholic and Protestant are of less concern for these historians, whose works deal with longer durations. A key figure in this approach to the social history of religion in early modern Europe was the French sociologist Gabriel Le Bras, whose concern with declining rates of church attendance in early-twentieth-century France launched research into what may be called the sociology of ecclesiastical conformity. In studying records of diocesan visits mandated by the Council of Trent, Le Bras and his students began the systematic investigation into the history of all dioceses in early modern France. Producing impressive data on church property, income, and figures of baptisms, communion, confessions, and so forth, this sociological approach provided a far sharper contour of the landscape of piety in early modern France than in any other European country.

The quantitative data provided by parish records and diocesan visitations also yielded interesting material for reconstructing the evolution of religious mentalities. Taking their clue from historians associated with the Annales, historians of religion have made interesting excursions into the history of mentalities. Studies of saint cults, attitudes toward death, and particular styles of Catholic piety were undertaken by detailed analyses of wills and donation records at pilgrimage shrines. A major finding in these quantitative studies is that Catholic piety increased in intensity from the second half of the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, but was followed by a long and gradual decline in devotional fervor. Particularly striking was the increasing indifference or hostility of elites toward Tridentine and baroque Catholicism during the eighteenth century.

Describing this phenomenon as "dechristianization," Jean Delumeau, a leading French historian of Christianity, saw little long-term structural distinction between Reformation and Catholic resurgence. In his 1977 book, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire, he dismisses the significance of the Counter-Reformation altogether: "The Counter-Reformation existed . . . but it was not essential to the transformation of the Catholic Church from the sixteenth century." Instead, Delumeau establishes a sharp contrast between medieval and early modern Europe: medieval Christianity ("the legend of a Christian Middle Ages" in his words) was magical and pagan; Tridentine Catholicism represented a massive attempt at Christianization, achieved by the training of new clergy, the catechizing of the common people, evangelizing the non-European world, and combating popular beliefs. Weaning the people away from their familiarity with medieval saints and folk beliefs, early modern Catholicism was in contrast a fearful, external, and coercive religion. For Delumeau both the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reform were subordinate to the even longer process of Christianization. But the people, faced with this alien, fearful religion, resisted the "culpabilization" of society, holding on to the familiar rituals and saints that gave them succor and consolation in an age of material want. Dechristianization during the eighteenth century represented, in Delumeau's view, a response to this program of coercive evangelization, and also to the gradual improvement of material life that alleviated fear and anxiety.

The unmistakable implication of Delumeau's work is to demonstrate the distinct character of Catholicism in early modern Europe. Historians no longer see the Counter-Reformation or the Catholic renewal as a revival of pre-Reformation Catholicism. Late-twentieth-century studies of the social history of Catholic Europe between 1500 and 1800 confirm this picture. The French historian Louis Châtellier investigated in turn the elites and the underclasses of early modern Europe. Drawing on sources from France, Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and central Europe, Châtellier documented the emergence of a distinctly elitist Catholic piety that characterized the supporters of the Jesuits, who comprised nobles and urban elites. At the other end of the social spectrum, the many new Catholic religious orders created after the Reformation targeted the most backward rural inhabitants for evangelization, preaching a message of spiritual consolation in deference to the state. The creation of a Catholic society of estates was in the making.


These currents of scholarship challenged received notions of "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic reform." In the 1990s, works of synthesis spoke of Catholic renewal and early modern Catholicism to denote a distinctly "modern" nature to developments in the Catholic world between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. This, taken together with revisionist scholarship on Protestantism that stressed the survival of medieval Christianity in Lutheran rituals and symbols, reveals a remarkable convergence. Whether one speaks of "social discipline," "confessionalization," "Christianization," or other concepts, scholarship on Protestant and Catholic Europe arrived at a general consensus: that the period 1500 to 1800 represents a distinct period in the history of religion, that parallel developments in Protestant and Catholic Europe in the terrain of social and cultural history outweigh the obvious differences in confession, and that the religious transformations of the period cannot be understood without an analysis of the larger trends of global expansion, state centralization, and social revolutions. There remain of course many points of disagreement and controversy; this brief sketch does not do full justice to the rich array of scholarship in the field. Transcending the four general approaches one can also identify clusters of themes that have received the most attention from social historians. These questions all revolve around the nature of religion and society: in other words, the relationships between religious crises and social change in early modern Europe.

Research on confessional societies has focused on two questions: First, how did religion account for differences in Protestant and Catholic societies? And, second, what was the precise relationship between social and religious change?

The first question addresses the notable differences in education, literacy, suicide rates, marital regimes, fertility rates, and social stratification between Catholic and Protestant societies. Two examples must suffice to illustrate the highly interesting research in this area. It has been demonstrated, for example, that in Oppenheim—a small German town on the Rhine with a confessionally mixed population during the early modern era—the Catholic community enjoyed the highest fertility rate and demographic growth, followed at a substantial distance by the Lutheran and Calvinist communities. Other case studies in historical demography seem to confirm this general trend; the general pattern of demographic differences between Protestant and Catholic countries is of course well recognized for the nineteenth and twentienth centuries. Another example is the study of suicide, inspired by Émile Durkheim's classic study that suggested important confessional differences in rates of suicide. Markus Schär's study of the canton of Zurich between 1500 and 1800 demonstrates a remarkable effect of Calvinism: as the Calvinist Reformation took root, first in the city of Zurich and later in its rural hinterland, a successful effort at social discipline vastly reduced the rate of homicide. However this campaign against violence and for self-discipline came at a high price: the decline in the homicide rate reflected almost as a mirror image a sharp rise in suicide rates in the three centuries under study. Particularly telling is that the highest rates of suicide were found among the social and religious elites most responsible for the social disciplining. Until similar studies are undertaken for Lutheran and Catholic areas, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions; but the example of Zurich suggests that Weber's notion of a Protestant (i.e., Calvinist) ethic was connected to more than just the spirit of capitalism.

The second question, on the relationship between social and religious change, is obviously much more complex and ambiguous. Aside from the concept of class struggle, gone out of fashion with the demise of the German Democratic Republic, the term "social class" is still employed by social historians as an imprecise but unavoidable heuristic device. More precise research has instead focused on two social groups: the clergy and the elites.

Although Protestants decried the privileges of the Catholic clergy, the Reformation, particularly in Lutheran Europe, created a self-replenishing Protestant clergy. Recruited primarily from the middling social groups in towns, the Protestant clergy was in terms of social origins markedly different from the Catholic clergy: it was much more homogenous, characterized by endogamy (marriage within the group) and generational succession; it tended to be better educated, with a university training almost a prerequisite ; and its origins were more urban, with the nobility and peasantry heavily underrepresented. Much of the research has focused on Lutheran Germany. Similar social histories of the Catholic clergy are less than abundant.

Study of elites. The study of elites tries to identify the social groups most responsible for religious change. In spite of numerous monographs, this issue is so complex and conditions differed so much from country to country or even from place to place that valid general conclusions are hard to come by. Nonetheless, research has established some general patterns.

First, it seems that the Reformation movement (in Germany, the Low Countries, France, and England) attracted among its first supporters primarily clerical dissidents, merchants, printers, and artisans; that it found the strongest support in cities, where literacy and modes of communication were the densest; that, aside from the Peasants' War in Germany and other isolated examples, it attracted few followers in rural areas; and that its success was often determined by power politics.

Second, the strongest support for confessionalization and social discipline seems to have been provided by the urban middle and upper classes and by rural elites. These social groups included lawyers, professors, officials, merchants, rich artisans, and village notables—the same social groups that provided most of the clergy for the competing Christian confessions as well. Many urban families apparently underwent a transformation from mercantile to judicial/official pursuits. This transformation seems to have taken place during the course of the entire sixteenth century and corresponded to what Fernand Braudel called "the treason of the bourgeoisie." What seemed clear is that the consolidation of confessional states and the attempt to exercise tighter social and religious control considerably expanded the apparatus of the state (in the form of larger administration, both secular and ecclesiastical) and provided the most significant means of upper social mobility for the urban middle classes. This process was at work in both Catholic and Protestant areas. With the notable exception of the Netherlands and England, service to the state and the church apparently replaced trade as the preferred ladders of social success in early modern Europe.

Women and gender. Instead of social groups, other researchers chose to analyze women and gender to investigate the relationship between society and religion. Perhaps more than other fields of history, the study of Protestant and Catholic Europe had neglected the role of women, mirroring the marginalization of women in the discourses of Protestant reformers and in Tridentine Catholicism. Research in the 1980s and 1990s filled many gaps: some of the topics include marriage, divorce, the reformers' attitude toward women, Catholic women and the Counter-Reformation, and so forth. Careful rereadings of sources and new research revealed that women were involved in all aspects of religious change, both for and against the Reformation.

The most significant impact of the Protestant Reformation on the family, as recent research argues, was the strengthening of patriarchy. Reformers and magistrates reinforced patriarchal authority and household stability in two ways, by elevating the status of marriage and the family life, and by attacking the elements that threatened the patriarchal household. Along the first line, reformers praised the ethical and Christian status of holy matrimony, arguing that marriage and family provided the optimal institution for Christian instruction and a bulwark against sin. The second strategy aimed at imposing stricter moral discipline for unmarried women, youths, and wayward patriarchs. The keeping of parish records, admonition from pastors, and disciplinary measure from church and state resulted in a stricter disciplinary regime that regulated sexuality and property. While the research on women corrects a long-neglected topic, fewer studies have used gender as a theoretical tool, with the notable exception of works on witchcraft and sexuality.

The study of witchcraft reflects a strong current of interest in religious and social dissent that was rare in Reformation scholarship before the 1960s. This scholarly enthusiasm for popular religion mirrored the political activism of many practitioners, who identified the official church as one of the repressive institutions of society; it also represented a new interest in sources hitherto neglected by historians, namely the rich extant records of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. While the longue durée and quantitative serial sources characterized the practice of the social history of religion in France, a legacy of the Annales paradigm, the study of religious dissent found its most interesting practitioners in Italy, in the works of Delio Cantimori and Carlo Ginzburg, among others. Taking Protestant dissent and popular religion as their subjects, these historians of the Left used the documents of the Catholic Church to demonstrate a variety of religious views and practices that were suppressed in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Witchcraft and magic constituted two fulcrums of research.

There have been three important conclusions in this research. First, magical beliefs and practices (the majority of which were associated with healing and medicine) were extremely widespread before the Reformation and persisted, even after concerted efforts at their elimination by the official Church after the sixteenth century. Second, religion and magic often coexisted as complementary systems in popular religion: images of saints, statues of the Virgin Mary, and official prayers were all used for extraliturgical and outright prohibited practices in the rural societies of early modern Europe. It was precisely to draw a sharper line of demarcation that Tridentine Catholicism waged an unrelenting campaign against the cunning men and wise women of the villages. Finally, the battle against magic/witchcraft and the war against heresy merged into one great conflagration. The first examples predate even the Reformation, when Waldensians in the mountainous regions between Switzerland, France, and Italy were hounded as heretics and witches. Images of the witches' sabbath were applied with increasing frequency to charges of heresy; and the ferocity of trials against religious dissidents equaled those conducted against suspects of witchcraft during the course of the sixteenth century. It led to an ineluctible logic at the height of the great witch hunts in the early seventeenth century: the conflation of the heretic and the witch as one and the same.

It is evident from this brief survey that there exist strong national and methodological differences in the social history of Reformation and Catholic Europe in the early modern era. Some of these differences originate in national traditions of historical scholarship; others reflect the different historical sources and legacies of Protestant and Catholic Europe. While social historians of both Protestant and Catholic Europe search parish records and visitation reports to reconstruct histories of piety, specialists on early modern Catholicism have access to the unique documentation of the Inquisition. The fifty thousand dossiers from the Spanish Inquisition and the twenty-three thousand from the Portuguese, in addition to the newly opened records of the Roman Inquisition, have already yielded a rich harvest of scholarship and hold still greater promise for twenty-first-century scholarship.

See alsoWitchcraft (volume 3);Belief and Popular Religion; Catholicism; Church and Society; Protestantism; The Reformation of Popular Culture (volume 5).


Blickle, Peter. Communal Reformation: The Quest for Salvation in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Atlantic Heights, N. J., 1992.

Blickle, Peter. Obedient Germans?: A Rebuttal. Translated by Thomas A. Brady Jr. Charlottesville, Va., 1997.

Blickle, Peter, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a New Perspective. Translated by Thomas A. Brady and H. C. Erik Midelfort. Baltimore, Md., 1981.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West 1400–1700. Oxford, 1985.

Châtellier, Louis. The Europe of the Devout: The Catholic Reformation and the Formation of a New Society. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Châtellier, Louis. The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of a Modern Catholicism, c. 1500–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation. London, 1977. Translation of Le Catholicisme entre Luther et Voltaire. Paris, 1971.

Delumeau, Jean. Le péché et la peur: La culpabilisation en Occident (XIIIe–XVIIIe siècles). Paris, 1983.

Delumeau, Jean. La peur en Occident, (XIVe–XVIIe siècles): Une cité assiégée. Paris, 1978.

Evennett, Henry Outram. The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1968.

Friesen, Abraham. Reformation and Utopia: The Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation and Its Antecedents. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1974.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi. London, 1983.

Gorski, Philip S. "The Protestant Ethic Revisited: Disciplinary Revolution and State Formation in Holland and Prussia." American Journal of Sociology 99 (1993): 265–310.

Guggisberg, Hans R., and Gottfried G. Krodel, eds. The Reformation in Germany and Europe: Interpretations and Issues. Special volume of the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1993).

Hsia, R. Po-chia, Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe 1550–1750. London, 1989.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. The World of Catholic Renewal 1540–1770. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Hsia, R. Po-chia, ed. The German People and the Reformation. Ithaca, N. Y., 1988.

Le Bras, Gabriel. Études de sociologie religieuse. 2 vols. Paris, 1955.

Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation: Three Essays. Philadelphia, 1972.

Oestreich, Gerhard. Neostoicism and the Early Modern State. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Reinhard, Wolfgang. "Gegenreformation als Modernisierung? Prolegomena zu einer Theorie des konfessionellen Zeitalters." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 68 (1977): 226–252.

Roper, Lyndal. The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford, 1989.

Schär, Markus. Seelennöte der Untertanen: Selbstmord, Melancholie und Religion im Alten Zürich 1500–1800. Zurich, Switzerland, 1985.

Schilling, Heinz. Civic Calvinism in Northwestern Germany and the Netherlands: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries. Kirksville, Mo., 1991.

Schilling, Heinz, ed. Kirchenzucht und Sozialdisziplinierung im frühneuzeitlichen Europa. Berlin, 1994.

Schmidt, Heinrich Richard. Dorf und Religion: Reformierte Sittenzucht in Berner Landegemeinden der Frühen Neuzeit. Stuttgart, Germany, 1995.

Scribner, Robert W. "Is There a Social History of the Reformation?" Social History 2 (1977): 483–505.

Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London, 1926.

Wiesner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Zschunke, Peter. Konfession und Alltag in Oppenheim: Beiträge zur Geschichte von Bevölkerung und Gesellschaft einer gemischtkonfessionellen Kleinstadt in der frühen Neuzeit. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1984.

About this article

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation

Updated About content Print Article