Why did early modern states seek to curb religious dissent and how significant were their efforts?

This essay achieved a low 2:1 in the first year of my undergraduate.

Why did early modern states seek to curb religious dissent and how significant were their efforts?

Religious dissent during the early modern period was something which arguably crippled many of the nascent nation-states of Europe at various points. Restricting this was therefore sought by the majority of contemporary monarchs. There are many arguments as to the specific reasons for the search for religious ‘concord,’[1] which range from the connotations of general unity,[2] as well as for the promotion of national identities, to the fact that religious concord was the inherent duty of monarchs.[3] At the same time as this, there were certain reasons why promoting religious unity was potentially unwise.[4] It is debatable how significant the attempts at religious concord were, both in terms of their success and their effects, primarily on state development.

The reasons for the limitation of religious dissent are fairly debatable, and encompass everything from the promotion of religious and by extension political and social unity to the fact that it was the duty of monarchs. The encouragement of religious concord promoted a wider unity, and meant that were less likely to be the fierce regional divisions by religion such as were present in France in 1562-3.[5] When a unified religious community developed, it meant that everyone who belonged to it was likely to share similar political and social potentially due their shared religious philosophies, and the fact that they spent a lot of time around each other. This worked the other way as well: religious unity was expected out of a political necessity.[6] By extension, if the people of the kingdom shared a religion it meant that it was easier for a monarch or state to appeal to all his subjects simultaneously, which would reduce the need for compromise, thus making it easier to govern the country effectively.

Another common way in which religious unity was promoted was through the persecution of minorities, also known as negative integration. Such a ‘tactic’ would serve to further unite and strengthen the majority (normally either Catholic or Protestant), while simultaneously weakening the minority and as such was a further reason for curbing religious dissent.  It was similarly considered a duty of many European monarchs, to swear at their consecration to “keep the peace of the church,” and to exterminate all those deemed heretics,[7] and this was strongly promoted in France. The fact that the rulers swore to it as they were crowned meant that it was inherently required that they pursued religious concord and therefore curbed dissent. In some European states, particularly in Germany, it was decided that the ‘religion of the ruler should be the religion of the ruled,’ under the principle of cuius regio eius religio, and cemented to a certain extent at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.[8] The former example in particular serves to clearly show the significance religion played in period in terms of promoting political legitimacy,[9] and it can therefore be argued that religious concord was sought merely as a source of political capital for various monarchs.

By contrast, there are also reasons why the pursuit of religious concord was not as vigorous as it might have been, the most important of which were arguably the threat of retribution or the economic connotations. The threat of retribution was held over most European states as a punishment for persecuting Muslims by the presence of strong Islamic states,[10] namely the Ottoman Empire which encircled a good proportion of the Mediterranean coastline. Likewise the Jews were protected, albeit to a lesser degree, by their unique position and influence within the financial industry. A good example of this is what happened in Spain following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.[11] The latter argument has more recently been contested, as it is argued that it was not out of necessity that the Jews were tolerated but rather out of greed.[12] Even if this is true, the point remains that there was a material incentive to tolerate a different religion, something which was according to Whaley reinforced even later and elsewhere, in eighteenth century Hamburg by the Treaty of Osnabrück.[13] The argument for toleration out of economic necessity has been heavily contested,[14] but the toleration itself provides incontrovertible evidence that the search for religious unity was not as fervent as it might have been. The reason for toleration is arguably irrelevant and in any case it varied from region to region (sometimes from town to town); the fact remains that there were also reasons why religious concord was not sought just as much as there were reasons why it was.

Perhaps more ideologically, and far more simply, the attempts to halt religious dissent inevitably led to persecution, bloodshed and, at its extremity, war.[15]  As well as being difficult to justify with religion, war was destructive to not just the people involved but to the state infrastructure as whole and so was something which was fiercely avoided. Evidence for this can be found in France, particularly following the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave Catholicism as the state religion but provisioned for Protestant Huguenots to worship freely – within certain geographical areas.[16]

The attempts to curb religious dissent were significant both in terms of their cumulative and wider impact. Perhaps the most important and furthest reaching impact of the search for religious concord was the one it had on state development. The effects these attempts had were not restricted to simply positive or negative; initially, they were almost exclusively negative while later in the period, they became increasingly positive. Earlier in the period, and as a result of the wars it arguably caused, religious concord and persecution undoubtedly stunted state development as it meant that the state was more concerned with defending the physical borders rather than the religion. As well as this, the contemporary focus of state development was originally centralisation, both political and industrial. Religious diversity by its nature would have hindered this still further, and it was only later on, once religious unity had by and large been achieved that the state would be able to move on to such ideas as promoting a national identity.

By contrast, as religious dissent became less of an issue, religion began to take a less central position within the state and the policies it created.[17] This is shown to a certain extent by the long-term decline in wars fought purely for the sake of religion. Similarly, when religious concord was achieved to any great degree, making the nation itself more unified, it meant that the state was able to devote more time, effort and funds to improving various areas of society. These improvements, in fields such as the economy and the military served to strengthen the nation as a whole, as well as the position of the state within it, exemplified best by the rise of Sweden as a major military power in the early seventeenth century.[18]

Attempts at religious unity were not just restricted to individual nations however, and some monarchs (particularly the Catholic monarchs of France and Spain) were also interested in wider religious unity. This was significant for the contemporary politics of Europe, as it meant that certain countries were forced into alliances with each other due to their matching religion out of a political necessity. Due to the fact that initially foreign policy was created based on religion meant that curbing dissent had a significant effect in creating internecine wars in Europe. This is shown first by the largely Habsburg-Valois conflicts of 1546-55 and later (1566-1609) with the Spanish aggression towards both the protestant Dutch and English.[19]

It is possible to argue that the impact of searching for religious unity was arguably fairly insignificant, as the impact was debatably limited to the elite who signed all of the treaties and edicts, and had little effect on the majority population. While this was uncommon, there are the somewhat startling examples, most notably in Hanover and Augsburg, where the elite minority imposed their Catholicism on the majority Lutheran population.[20] The extent to which impositions such as these actually affected the ‘ruled’ is a contentious and widely debated issue with some, including Roper, Scribner and Rublack arguing that the rulers were far more antagonistic,[21] and others including Vogler that the ‘ruled’ strongly resisted them.[22] It is precisely this: the fact that there were varying levels of interaction between the elite and the people which caused inter-regional conflict and rivalry, and this would seemingly make it clear that the effect of the search for concord, however local, was significant for the greater politics of the area, and on a larger scale, Europe.

Overall, it is impossible to pinpoint any single reason for early modern states to have sought to curb religious dissent due to the fact that they varied so wildly from state to state, and from consolidating the position of the state as a whole to promoting the power of an individual monarch. As well as this, there are as many reasons why early modern states would have wanted to encourage religious tolerance. The significance of the attempts (or otherwise) themselves is far more clear cut. While there are arguments debating this significance, it seems impossible to deny both the short term impacts on the political landscape of contemporary Europe, and the long term impacts on European state development.

Word Count (including title): 2,000

 

[1] M. Turchetti, ‘Religious concord and political tolerance in sixteenth and seventeenth century France,’ Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), pp.15-25.

[2] Put forward by M.J. Braddick, State Formation in early modern England 1550-1700.

[3] M. Turchetti, ‘Religious concord and political tolerance in sixteenth and seventeenth century France,’ Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), p.16.

[4] See H. Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, pp.9-12 and T.A. Brady Jr., H.A. Oberman and J.D. Tracy (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, p.263.

[5] S. Gunn, ‘War, Religion and the State,’ in ed. E. Cameron, Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, p.128

[6] M.J. Braddick, State Formation in early modern England 1550-1700, p.289

[7] M. Turchetti, ‘Religious concord and political tolerance in sixteenth and seventeenth century France,’ Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), p.16

[8] J.F. Harrington and H.W. Smith, ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), p.77

[9] M.J. Braddick, State Formation in early modern England 1550-1700, p.287

[10]T.A. Brady Jr, H.A. Oberman and J.D. Tracy (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, p.263

[11] H. Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, pp.11-2

[12] T.A. Brady Jr, H.A. Oberman and J.D. Tracy (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, pp.263-5

[13] J. Whaley, Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg 1529-1819,  J.F. Harrington and H.W. Smith, ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997)

[14] J. Leclerc, Toleration and the Reformation, 2 vols. and H. Lutz (ed.), Zur Geschicte der Toleranz und Religionsfreiheit

[15] J.F. Harrington and H.W. Smith, ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), p.77, M.E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p.151-2

[16] M.E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p.180

[17] J.F. Harrington and H.W. Smith, ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), p.88

[18] See to a certain extent M.Roberts, ‘The military revolution, 1560-1660: an inaugural lecture delivered before the Queen’s Univeristy of Belfast,’ and S. Gunn, ‘War, Religion and the State,’ in ed. E. Cameron, Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, p.126.

[19] M.E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, pp.167-9, 177-81.

[20] J.F. Harrington and H.W. Smith, ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), p.83

[21] L. Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg, B. Scribner, ‘The Reformation as a Social Movement’ in ed. W.J. Mommsen Stadtbürgertum und Adel in der Reformation: Studien zur Sozialgeschicte der Reformatino in England und Deutschland, pp.49-79 and H-C. Rublack, Die Gescheiterte Reformatino: Früherformatorische und protestantishe Bewegungen in sud- un westdeutschen geislichen Residenzen.

[22] B. Vogler, Vie religieuse en pays rhénan dans la seconde motié du XVIe siècle, 3 vols.

Bibliography

Braddick, M.J., State Formation in early modern England 1550-1700 (Cambridge, 2000)

Brady Jr., T.A., Oberman, H.A. and Tracy, J.D. (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation (Leiden, New York and Köln, 1994)

Cameron, E., (ed.), Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (New York, 2001)

Harrington, J.F., and Smith, H.W., ‘Confessionalization, Community and State Building in Germany, 1555-1870,’ The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), pp.77-101

Kamen, H., The Spanish Inquisition (London, 1965)

Kleinman, R., ‘Changing Interpretatinos of the Edict of Nantes: The Administrative Aspect, 1643-1661,’ French Historical Studies, 10 (1978), pp.541-71

Leclerc, J., Toleration and the Reformation, 2 vols. (London, 1960)

Lutz, H. (ed.), Zur Geschicte der Toleranz und Religionsfreiheit (Darmstadt, 1977)

Roberts, M., ‘The military revolution, 1560-1660: an inaugural lecture delivered before the Queen’s Univeristy of Belfast.’

Roper, L., The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford, 1989)

Rublack, H-C., Die Gesceiterte Reformation: Frühreformatorische und protestantische Bewegungen in sud- un westdeutschen geistlichen Residenzen (Stuttgart, 1978)

Russell, C., ‘Arguments for Religious Unity in England, 1530-1650,’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 18 (1967), pp.201-26

Scribner, B., ‘The Reformation as a Social Movement,’ in W.J. Mommsen (ed.), Stadtbürgertum und Adel in der Reformatino: Studien zur Sozialgeschicte der Reformatino in England und Deutschland (Stuttgart, 1979)

Turchetti, M., ‘Religious concord and political tolerance in sixteenth and seventeenth century France,’ Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991) pp.15-25

Vogler, B., Vie religieuse en pays rhénan dans la seconde motié du XVIe siècle, 3 vols. (Lille, 1974)

Whaley, J., Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg 1529-1819 (Cambridge, 1985)

Wiesner-Hanks, M.E., Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge, 2006)

Feedback:

60%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good

Focus on question: Good

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good-Competent

Sources cited correctly: Good-Competent

General Comments and Advice: This is a good answer to the question. You pick up on most of the positive and negative aspects of persecution, and correctly identify the importance of religious unity to state development in this period. You also make one or two very insightful points, and offer conclusions on key historical debates.

There are one or two areas for improvement. Your conclusion on the first half of the question was a little weak, particularly after you’d emphasised the importance of curbing dissent to the authorities in the main part of the essay – could we not argue this, with the monarch’s religious duty, was a widely shared and powerful reason? You also needed to spread the excellent historiographical awareness you show on pages 2 and 4 across more of the essay as a whole. Also, your assertion that reasons for toleration are ‘arguably irrelevant’ wipes out a lot of historians’ work at one go!

Overall, however, this is a good essay. You perhaps need to take more care when proof reading, and have a little more confidence in your conclusions, but you show a lot of potential here.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s