Generation 480, 1580-1600. Passionate inquiry

This generation agonised about religion. The reformation earlier in the century opened the floodgates to a series of questions that had previously been answered by the clergy, and now were open to all.

How to live a godly life? Should a person accept one of the many versions of christianity on offer? If so, which? There was a real fear of eternal damnation if a person chose the wrong answer. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, so is there any free will? Are our lives all already predestined? Does this mean that each person is already doomed or one of the elect, and nothing they can do will change that?

For catholics in the south of Europe, their church was the mouthpiece of christianity, with a tradition going back to St Peter, and the pope as his successor. The protestants in the north were misguided, dangerous heretics, their ideas an abomination to be expunged. For the protestant north, views of the pope varied from an irrelevance to the antichrist. But even within these groups there were major disagreements, and some members of one camp found they had more in common with the other than with their supposed co-religionists. German catholic bishops, resisting the centralising influence from Rome, could admire the relative freedom of their protestant equivalents.

The fracturing even extended to the calendar. In 1582 pope Gregory implemented long-overdue calendar reform. The Julian calendar had been slipping out of sync with the seasons, which posed a problem for religious reasons: Easter sometimes fell too late. So a papal bull of that year decreed that October 4th should be followed by October 15th, in order to bring Easter back in line. However sensible this reform was, it was resisted by the protestant north, simply because it had emanated from Rome. It was eventually adopted by most of northern Europe two centuries later, and lastly by Russia and Greece in the twentieth century.

Another complication was that people were conditioned to submit to authority. This was how the world worked. A startling example of this was the dilemma facing the United Provinces of the Netherlands. After many years of fighting their catholic Spanish overlords, they won independence from Spain in 1579. Then they were confronted with the question of who was to be their new master. They tried a French catholic aristocrat, the Duke of Anjou, but that didn’t work out. An English protestant aristocrat, the Earl of Leicester, lasted a couple of years, but fell from favour for espousing one set of answers to the questions of religion, trying to impose his chosen version of Christianity and suppress the others. Eventually and very reluctantly the Dutch settled for a republic, under the long-distance protection of Elizabeth of England.

A further question that gave an added twist to the debate was: God gave me the ability to think. Should I abdicate this ability and unquestioningly submit to someone else’s ideas? The Dutch decided against this on the whole, but that didn’t stop them from arguing with each other. This was the start of a miraculous century for this small country. Because nothing was decided, refugees felt safer here than in countries with more definite ideas. Jews, catholics and all flavours of protestants could gratefully settle here and earn their way. Despite the fact that their country had been at war for so long, the people took up the new opportunities with remarkable vigour. Dutch ships travelled into the Mediterranean, to Africa and beyond. Their merchants brought back new goods to trade, new ideas to explore.

The other vigorous adventuring nation was the Portuguese, themselves newly ruled by Spain. They set up trading posts in Brazil, Africa, India and even Japan. Alongside them was an extraordinary religious order, founded earlier in the century. The Jesuits believed in adherence to the pope, and the power of education. They worked by invitation, cooperating with people of influence in their chosen area. They set up schools, training the next generation of decision makers, and waited for their influence to take effect. This patient strategy reclaimed much of central Europe for the catholic faith. Graz in Austria was an example. It was a protestant stronghold until the local nobility realised that the way for their children to get posts at court was through the Jesuit schools. The protestant schools eventually closed and now, over 400 years later, Austria is still nominally catholic.

The Jesuit church in Rome, Il Gesu, also broke new boundaries. Built during this generation, it was one of the first examples of the new baroque style of architecture. Rich, lavish and exuberant, the parts all contribute to an extravagant whole. Take away any of these parts and it doesn’t work quite so well. In the earlier classical renaissance architecture, in contrast, the focus was on simpler, clean lines.

Chiesa Il_Gesu

Another difference between the protestant north and catholic south was the attitude to the written word. In Italy in the south, the bible was available only to the clergy. In the north, it was translated into the local languages, and widely read. This required a level of literacy, which in turn led to a new flourishing of creativity. In England in particular the poets and playwrights explored the dilemmas of the time and entertained the public with their works. The best known, William Shakespeare, was one of many. So far as I can tell, he and his fellow playwrights reinvented theatre as a mode of artistic expression, for the first time since classical Greece.

And we have to mention a writer from catholic Spain, as an exception to the rule. Miguel de Cervantes was experimenting with fiction writing. His work resulted in one of the great works of European literature, published in the following generation: Don Quixote.


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