Europe Sticks It To The Man! | Reformation & Enlightenment

So the late medieval era is dominated by two institutions: the Church and the monarchy. But now people are considering the human condition, and they see individual people as valuable in addition to God and King. This leads to two events that will break down the absolute power that the Pope and the King had over people’s lives in Europe: the Reformation and the Enlightenment. And it’s these two events that sets Europe off on a very different path compared to basically every other civilization on earth.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

First, the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his Wittenburg Church. These were 95 complaints (in the form of thesis statements – he must have taken an AP history class) that he had against the Church. So what were some of the problems with the Church by the end of the medieval era?

Problems in the medieval church

For one, they were insanely wealthy. It’s estimated that the Church owned ⅓ of all land in Europe. And, they didn’t have to pay any taxes on that land. Also, they got free labor from peasants when they needed to till their fields or shorn their sheep or whatever you did in the Middle Ages.

Finally, every Christian was expected to pay the tithe – or tax – to the Church. Around 10% of your yearly income was supposed to be given to the Church in the form of money or goods. There were years when the Church had so much wheat from the tithe, for example, that it would rot in their silos while small farmers are struggling to put food on the table. Not a great PR move.

Second, the Church had a ton of influence. They had the power to excommunicate individuals from the church – which means they would no longer be able to receive the holy sacraments, like baptism, marriage or being prayed over after you died. If you were a devout Christian – which most everyone was – this was a fate worse than death because it meant you couldn’t get into heaven. And they had power over kings because they could issue an interdict – which basically meant that an entire kingdom would be excommunicated until the ruler bent to what the Church wanted. Whoa.

Finally, there was corruption within the church – and this was the stuff that Martin Luther was the most upset about. In the Middle Ages most families practice primogeniture, which means that the first son gets all the land. So if you were a second, third, or god-forbid fourth son, you might get money and influence but you had to make your own name for yourself since you didn’t inherit any land. Some became high-level merchants and will later invest in early joint-stock companies, especially to buy up new real estate in the Americas.

Others who wanted influence and power might enter the Church. So it could look like this – you or your family makes a very generous donation to the Church, and then the next day you are named a bishop. That’s pretty sweet for you, but it’s also immoral (considering church positions are supposed to go to the most faithful servants of God) and it’s called Simony. It’s named after a guy named Simon in the Bible who offered to pay Peter and John to teach him how to impart people with the Holy Spirit. Jesus was like, “Uh no. That’s not how it works.” But that was how it worked in the medieval Church.


But the thing that really got Martin Luther fired up was the selling of indulgences. These were basically Get Out of Hell Free cards that you could get if you made a generous enough donation to the Church. So, indulgences originally were intended to mean any way that you made up for the Church indulging your sin – it could be community service, prayers, or acts of charity. But over time, “acts of charity” for people with money just became writing a check to your local priest so that he would absolve you of your sin.

It’s sort of like that kid who tried to argue that since he grew up so spoiled and rich and his parents never taught him right and wrong that he couldn’t be convicted of his crime. Affluenza. Pfft. Needless to say, this angered poor people – who just had to do it the old fashioned way and not sin – and devout scholars of the Bible, like Martin Luther, who read about Jesus and thought, “This doesn’t seem like quite what he had in mind.”

Luther’s vision

Luther is a humanist who believes a lot of new and crazy things. He believes that individual Christians should learn to read the Bible for themselves. He wants to print the Bible in vernacular languages (or the languages people actually speak) like French and German instead of the traditional Latin. He believes that the Church should be simpler and not accumulate so much wealth. And he definitely doesn’t think they should be able to sell people pieces of paper that absolve them of their sins.

So Martin Luther complains to the Church and they excommunicate him. But, Martin Luther had access to this new technology that had come over from China – thanks Mongols for reuniting Eurasian trade! – the printing press. He’s able to fire off a bunch of pamphlets like Tom Cruise manically typing up that email about why sports agents are terrible people or something.

Others read his angry manifesto, pick up their goldfish, and leave with them. Martin Luther was basically the Jerry Maguire of 16th century Europe. The Church claims they haven’t been selling indulgences and he’s like “Show me the money!” And then when others break away with him and start calling themselves Lutherans he’s like, “You complete me.”

henry VIII and the church of england

Across the pond, there’s an English king who Martin Luther “had at hello.” OK. I’ll stop. Henry VIII had been having issues with the Pope ever since he wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused because he didn’t want to anger Spain – where Catherine’s family still ruled – I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Spanish are pretty Catholic.

Anyway, Henry looks over and sees Martin Luther breaking away and is like, “Wait. We can do that?!” He breaks away and forms the Church of England or Anglican Church and puts the English monarch in charge. You know the story. He annuls his marriage and ships Catherine and their daughter Mary off to Ireland where they’re all very angry and very Catholic, so they fit in just fine. Henry marries Anne Boleyn, who dares to give him another daughter named Elizabeth, so he chops off her head. He marries four more times, has a son who is a total dud and dies at like 15, and ends up having to accept that his daughter will succeed him after all of that trouble.

So it’s really simple to say that Henry left the Church just to get a divorce. But really, it was also a power grab. By kicking out the Catholic Church, he’s able to take all of their land and wealth and give it to the Crown. That’s one of the reasons why his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, is able to finance so many incredible things that she gets her own era – the Elizabethan Age. She uses some of that money to promote the arts – hello William Shakespeare – and to finance ventures to the New World.

Queen Elizabeth I

But wait. Back up. We have a English queen?! You guys didn’t think I was going to just skip past this did you? If so, then you have not been paying attention. Henry VIII was so concerned with his Tudor line continuing that before he died he had Parliament sign a thing called the Act of Succession that recognized that his daughters could inherit the throne if their brother died (which he did pretty early in his rule).

But, you’ll remember that Henry had two daughters – Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. And there are still a lot of politicians who are angry or terrified that Henry has pissed off the Catholic Church. They scheme to put Mary on the throne who rules for a short time and murders a ton of Protestants – they call her Bloody Mary.

Eventually Elizabeth comes to power with the support of the Protestants. She has another Mary to deal with – her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots – whom she sees as a threat to her power, imprisons, and then eventually has killed. Just watch the CW’s Reign and you’ll get the gist.

So in England, it is now acceptable to have a female ruler – if, and only if, there are no male heirs. Interestingly, this just got changed like 2 years ago. England finally passed a new rule that says that daughters don’t get skipped if they have a younger brother – and William and Kate’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, is the first girl to not lose her place in line to her younger brother – the very new Prince Louis.  

who are the protestants?

So back to the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s act sets off an explosion of other groups fracturing off from the Church. Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Episcopalians, etc. These group are all collectively known as Protestants because they protested against the Church.

absolute monarchy

There were another group of protesters who focused on the absolute power of monarchs across Europe. Up until this point, European kings were believed to have the divine right to rule. Basically they were ordained by God himself and could not be questioned. We see this across the world for most of history – Egyptian pharaohs were believed to be gods, Chinese emperors were given a Mandate from Heaven, and Islamic Caliphs had inherited the mantle of power from Muhammad himself.

In Europe, the poster child for an absolute ruler is Louis XIV of France. He built the palace at Versailles, funded the arts (establishing France as the center of European culture), and significantly reduced the power of his nobles by making them all come and live with him in his court. One of the most coveted court positions was to be the man who got to dress him in the morning. Powerful nobles would sleep outside Louis’s bedroom, hoping to be invited in the morning to help him get ready.

The Enlightenment | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: Henri Testelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Louis XIV, 1685 C.E. Henri Testelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Louis also had incredible hair. Side note: Y’all know that the men during this time period all wore wigs because their hair fell out because they all had syphilis right? Yeah. The disease came from the newly discovered Americas and traveled back from the New World and ravaged European high society. It’s the ultimate Montezuma’s revenge.

In England, only the closest member of the court was selected to be the King’s Gentleman of the Stool. This position meant you had the ear of the king and could have a ton of influence because you were with him at his most vulnerable. Your job was to help him use the toilet and then wipe his ass. Really.

Why does the enlightenment happen in early modern europe?

So some humanist philosophers started to question this whole set up. Like, maybe government shouldn’t be so one-sided where the king gets to do whatever he wants and everyone else has to just deal with his crap – literally. I’m sure other people had questioned this thousands of years ago, so why does it work now?

First, the printing press. This invention by Gutenberg (China had invented all the different parts – but Gutenberg put them all together into a new machine) allowed for information to be shared and improved way faster than ever before. It was like the internet of the 15th century. Now people across Europe could start to get in touch more easily and see that there were other like-minded individuals who also wanted change.

Also, Europe had fractured into separate kingdoms – so instead of being under the singular power of an emperor with nowhere to go, now if you disagreed with your leader you could hop across the border and find somewhere that was a little more lenient – like England or the Netherlands. (Thanks Magna Carta!)

Finally, some pretty huge events over the past few hundred years had caused people to question the old ways of doing things. Christians losing the Crusades decreased trust in the Church and the Pope. The increase in literacy (thanks in part to Martin Luther’s push to get people to read their own Bible) created a new middle class who could read and think for themselves. Universities had been established by merchant families like the Medici who had gotten rich off the Crusade trade.

And, some guys had just discovered that two entire continents exist that no one knew about. So people are starting to look around and question everything. Including their rulers.

This period of time is known as the Enlightenment. Keep in mind – it’s happening at the same time as the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the Age of Exploration. Whoa. We think our news is jam-packed.

enlightenment debate

We could spend a ton of time on this but the discussions boiled down to two ideas typified by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They disagreed on the basic essence of human nature. Thomas Hobbes believed people were bad and needed to be governed by an absolute ruler who had complete control. John Locke believed people were good and could share power with their ruler who would have to abide by a constitution. Sound familiar? It’s the Legalism/Confucianism debate in China all over again. Hobbes would have been BFFs with Shi Huangdi and Locke would have been a scholar bureaucrat.

The guy you should know about is John Locke because the United States basically copied and pasted his writing and called it the Declaration of Independence. Locke proposed that the government and the people had a social contract and when the government stopped doing its part and serving the people, the people have the right to overthrow their leaders and institute a new government. (It’s basically like the loophole the Chinese have had in their Mandate of Heaven for years)

Locke also proposed that people have basic inalienable rights that cannot be taken away – life, liberty, and property. You thought I was going to say “the pursuit of happiness” didn’t you? Nope. The founding fathers weren’t too keen on guaranteeing everyone the right to property – that’s what made them special! – so they switched it to the pursuit of happiness. Tricky, tricky…

Keep in mind – these new ideas about government don’t get put into action during the early modern era. Guys just start writing about them. Montesquieu writes that a government would be most effective with three branches that check each other’s power. Voltaire proposes that people should also have freedom of speech and religion.

And a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft is going to propose that women should probably be included in all of this as “the people” who get rights, but everyone else is like, “Mary, quit getting all emotional and nagging us about rights, we’ll get to you when we get to you.” *sigh*