Lecture: Age of Religious Wars

I've changed the title of this lecture a number of times. Should I emphasis the Wars of Religion, as if they dominated everything? The economic changes caused by colonialism? The scientific achievement that later leads to a different way of looking at the world? include Shakespeare? or should I just make sure the politics take us to 1648, the end of the class? We'll keep the title for now.

Economic change

Throughout history (<- look out! a badly-phrased theme!), periods of free-for-all economic expansion are often followed by some level of contraction and control, as some figure out how to profit at the expense of others.

Spanish coinsThere is no question that the 16th century experienced economic expansion -- it was the era of exploration and colonization. You may recall that what the Spanish found in Mexico was a lot of gold and silver. This was mined and transported to Europe. As it entered Spain, it caused inflation of prices. But Iberia was not a commercial or industrial area -- Spain and Portugal were still mostly agricultural. This meant that since they had to import most manufactured goods from the north, most of the gold and silver was exported out of the area. Much went to the manufacturing areas of northern France, England and the Netherlands. Ultimately, trade with Asia meant that most of the gold and silver from the New World ended up in China (an interesting parallel to today).

The "price revolution" was also caused by population increase, as the population began to recover some after the first rounds of the plague. There may not have been enough going on agriculturally to feed the entire population, so food prices increased.

sheepSince the price of woollen goods was also increasing, lords who wanted to profit from price increases looked for ways to raise more sheep and control the profit. Some began to focus on "enclosure", the practice of commandeering the common land used by peasants to graze their animals or raise extra food. Enclosure made life more difficult for the peasants. Some historians believe that it was enclosure that began to dismantle the medieval manorial system of mutual responsibility between peasant and lord. Commerce began to replace these responsibilites.

Saxony wheelEntrepreneurs also took advantage of people's need for money, and the labor they could provide in the countryside. The cloth industry is again the best example. An entrepreneur might buy raw wool, and take it to the cottage of a peasant who knew how to spin, or even one who had one of the new spinning wheels. Collecting the spun yarn a week later, he could then take it to someone who had a loom, and did weaving in their home. Then on to a dyer, and a fuller, and so forth, until he marketed the finished cloth.

Products made with this "putting out" (or domestic) system could be made much more cheaply than in guild-controlled towns, so the guilds could be impacted in any area where people could produce items at home for sale. Specialty processes that needed high-level equipment, like press printing, metalworking, silk spinning and wire-drawing remained town and guild-dominated.

At the same time as this commercial expansion, states were changing also. The competition for colonies, the battles for succession like the Hundred Years War, the ongoing conflict among the Italian city-states, and the new conflicts between Protestant and Catholic meant that more money was going into funding armies. The state needed to control its own money, and spend it in a way that would benefit the government during a time of change. Taxation systems were codified, and trade regulated. Instead of waiting to see how things would go (as brick-and-mortar businesses have done today in response to the internet), 16th century governments moved quickly to create systems of tariffs. Innovations like double-entry bookkeeping, which were beneficial to merchants, also helped governments.

Realizing the impact of gold and silver (bullion) leaving a country, policies were enacted designed to keep bullion in the country. The idea was that there was only so much wealth in the world, and that wealth was gold and silver. So for a country to prosper, they needed to export high-value goods, and import cheap goods or raw materials, preferably from colonies the country controlled. That way the home country would become wealthier. Governments established trade barriers such as tariffs and duties designed to encourage domestic industry and make imported goods more expensive. The most important way they controlled trade, however, was by chartering companies to monopolize trade in a particular area. These companies would come to not only dominate trade in the colonies, but even control and govern the colonies themselves.

Arts and Music

The arts and music from 1500-1648 reflected not only a sophistication we commonly see in commercial society, but a beauty that seems to fit with the ochre colors used by its artists. The Baroque masterpieces date from this time, but my favorite picture for the era captures the "battle" between Carnival (the party side of life) and Lent (the life of religion). It's Pieter Brueghel's work, from 1559.

Carnival vs Lent

This age is one of adjustment to new commercial and religious models at the same time. And the same conflict we saw with Savanarola in Renaissance Florence, the vanity of worldly goods versus a life dedicated to God, is here in this painting. Calvinists solved the problem by viewing worldly success as a sign of God's favor, the origin of the "Protestant work ethic".Parmagiano

This is also the time of the transition away from the Renaissance style of art, toward something we call "Mannerism". Mannerists imitated the High Renaissance styles, but they also responded to the new trends in society and politics. The style is deliberately artificial. My favorite mannerist painting is Parmigiano's Madonna and Child with Angels (1534-40), known for obvious reasons as the Madonna with the Long Neck. This style is supposed to add sophistication through a certain lack of balance and proportion (those elements so prized in Renaissance art as a re-emergence of the classical style). Rather like the Hellenistic styles added drama to move away from Greek statis, Mannerism moved away from the perfect proportions of the Renaissance.

Another example would be Tintoretto. Here's a comparison between the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci and that of Tintoretto.

Leonardo's Last Supper

Notice how balanced and peaceful Leonardo's version is.

Tintoretto's Last Supper

Notice how dramatic, offset, unbalanced, and boldly contrasted Tintoretto's is.

Music developed a certain sound during this time, and many samples are available (you can hear it at a Renaissance Faire). It's surprising that Thomas Tallis was patronized by both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in England, given the difference in religion. His most famous work, and one of the most beautiful ever, is Spem in Allium (1570), which is rumored to have been written for Queen Elizabeth I's birthday.

Sheet music [pdf]

The transition to Mannerism here can best be heard in the work of Gesualdo, who wrote madrigal music with chromatic harmonies.

Presumably the latter is more sophisticated. Rembrandt's Night Watch

Artists of the Baroque era did not only work for royal and church patrons. As more money was concentrated into the hands of the middle classes, we find artists working for wealthy middle-class patrons as we enter the 17th century. Here's a great example from 1642 (right), Rembrandt's The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq (known as The Night Watch).

The men make up a kind of high-level neighborhood watch group, guarding each others' warehouses in Amsterdam to prevent theft. They expected the portrait to show all of them clearly, lined up, but instead it didn't even though each man paid Rembrandt the same amount.

Women and Witchcraft

We know that the Inquisition had more power in the 16th century to eliminate "sorcery" from Europe. At the same time, women in ordinary culture were gaining a more active role in public life. I see the two facts as coming up against each other and leading to witch hunts.

The Hammer of Witches was a guidebook for inquisitors, written back in 1486. It gives us a strong indication of how the issue was seen. Notice how in 1486 it is assumed that the witch is male:

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But such handbooks were more in demand in the 16th century, as there seemed to be an upsurge in witchcraft and other satanic practices.

We know that the population in general expanded during the 16th century, while food production had not yet caught up. As a result, the age at marriage tended to be later because land was scarce, and agrarian couples could not marry until they had land to support them. Later marriage tends to mean that women in particular get a chance to develop their own personalities before marrying. In addition, the era saw a demographic imbalance: there were about 110-120 women for every 100 men. We know that such gender imbalance causes change. When men outnumber women, men tend to compete with each other through flashy fashions and showing off their wealth. When there are more women than men, it leaves more women unmarried, and therefore in need of tending to their own affairs.

Certainly we know that there were social objections to women being strong and independent. One good example can be seen in Hic Mulier (the Mannish Woman) from 1620, which objects to the revealing fashions. In some cases, fashions that reveal the body can indicate dependence, as in men showing off their women. But here the objection is to single, independent women dressing this way.

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witch kissing Devil on behind
Francesco Maria Guazzo,
The Obscene Kiss, 1608
The victims of witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries were predominantly female. They tended to be widows or single women, often on the outskirts of society or in professions where they had a lot of contact with men (tavern owner, shopkeeper). The predilection to accuse females was so strong that some feminist historians accuse the Church of "gendercide". While that seems to be going a bit far, society might have been using witchcraft to cleanse itself of perceived sins, including those that involved killing fellow Christians because they believed differently than ones own church.

Such trials also revived the concept of women in general as representing the base and earthly Eve, rather than the virginal Mary. Women were seen as more gullible to the wiles of the Devil, more inherently susceptible to witchcraft than men. You can see the witches in the image on the right kissing the behind of the Devil, a satanic practice. Women had societies that men could not enter. The activities that had always been dominated by women, such as childbirth and herbology, were now seen as suspect. Midwives, for example, were accused of infanticide when a baby died.

Now here we get into the question of whether witchcraft actually existed. Certainly many believed it did, and not just ignorant people. And certainly there were people who claimed to worship the Devil, and who met with others to engage in Black Sabbaths and other practices viewed with suspicion by nominal Christians. But studies of witchcraft trials during this era suggest not only gender issues, but also competition for land, commercial rivalries, sexual jealousy, political conflict, psychological derangement, fear of change, and other explanations for what happened. Each case seems to provide its own peculiar combination of local crisis, but all seem to have one. People don't go hunting for witches when they are happy and secure.

Witch hunts didn't really end until the popularization of the scientific method, near the end of the 17th century. (If you've studied American history, our Salem witch trials of 1692 are very late, well after Europe stopped.)

circulatory system drawingBut that doesn't mean there wasn't scientific advancement in the 16th century. Examples would include the work of Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), an expert in surgery and forensic pathology. He developed the idea of ligatures for closing off arteries in amputations, and lancing infant gums when teeth refused to erupt, causing infection. We also have Vesalius (1514-64), who created detailed anatomical woodcut illustrations for his students. He also publicly dissected a body and arranged its skeleton for later study. His work on the vascular and circulatory system is the foundation of today's cardiovascular medicine.

And of course we can't forget Copernicus, the Polish mathematician who published his work just before his death in 1543. Copernicus revised everyone's understanding of astronomy by moving the sun to the center of the system. Before his work and for some time afterward, the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system was what everyone knew: it had the earth, immovable, at the center, with stars and planets stuck onto crystalline spheres that revolved around the earth in perfect circular orbit. This system was easy to understand and intuitive -- it looks like what you see when you look up at the sky. The trouble was that each new object discovered in the sky, if it moved in a different way, required that another sphere be added to the system. Copernicus saw this as cluttered and mathematically unpleasant. Putting the sun in the middle simplified things. But because the Ptolemaic-Artistotelian system was supported by Church doctrine, Copernicus did not publish until he knew he was dying. Even then, it would take Galileo and his telescope to show that Copernicus was correct (and doing so brought Galileo before the Inquisition in 1615).

Religious Wars and Toleration

I won't lecture much here about the wars themselves - we know that Protestants and Catholics had at each other throughout the 16th century and well into the 17th. In fact, the Thirty Years War marks the end of this class precisely because it marks the end of war fought to save the souls of other people.

It's harder to talk about tolerance, and harder to find it manifesting itself in history. We do have an example of legal tolerance in the Edict of Nantes (1598).

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We can see this kind of thing as state-sanctioned toleration, for which it is hard to find previous examples. That may testify to the new power of the state, which can decree something as broad as tolerance for a certain group of people. Eras of tolerance tend to end with war. The Edict would be revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV. who at the time was at war with several powers in Europe.

30 Years War ChartThe Thirty Years War is a marker for us because it ended very differently from how it began, and the reason is important. It began when Protestant lords of Bohemia and Austria rebelled against an effort by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II to enforce Catholicism throughout the empire. The Protestants called on Protestant countries (England, the Netherlands, Sweden) for assistance, and the Catholics called on Spain and the pope, as well as Catholic German principalities like Bavaria. So it begins as a war of religion, just like others.

But even previous "religious wars" had political elements. The Revolt of the Netherlands had begun in 1566 as the Protestant Dutch (the dominant group in the Netherlands) rebelled against his Most Catholic Majesty Philip II of Spain, who became their overlord. This war is thus partly nationalist (Dutch versus Spanish) as well as religious.

Similarly, the French Wars of Religion, which had begun in 1562, was also a class war between the commercial Hugenots (French Protestants) and the Catholic rulers. There Protestant activity was considered treasonous, threatening the control of the French king.

During the Thirty Years War, there appears to be an actual switch to purely political and nationalist motivations. In the first stage of the war, the Catholics won and Ferdinand II secured the Holy Roman Empire under Catholicism. Then the Swedes invaded on behalf of the Protestants, and a Spanish army met them and forced the Protestants out of southern Germany. This seemed to surround France with Hapsburg powers, which France had feared for some time. France then declared war on Spain in 1635. Both countries were Catholic -- the issue was now political.

Sweden, France, Spain and Austria thus battled on German soil in a brutal free-for-all, trying to destroy things that might be of use to the enemy and forage for food and supplies as they could. Huge damage was done and many civilians, especially in Germany, were killed. Eventually France and Sweden (one Catholic, one Protestant) were victorious.

The stage was thus set for wars about a country's territory, power and control rather than religion. But it didn't make war any more kind than it had been before.

Lessons of History:

1. Price increases caused changes in the 16th century economy.

2. Art and music of this time represent a shift from Renaissance values and styles to something more sophisticated and not as classical.

3. Witch huntings was exacerbated by demographic and the gender issues those created, as well as economic and social shifts.

4. The Thirty Years War began as a religous war but ended as a modern political war.


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.