The Emergence of Modern Europe

Western Europe underwent substantial religious, political, social, economic and intellectual change between 1500 and 1800. The process of change was often disruptive, leading to a number of bloody wars between European powers. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, several European countries were in a position to play major roles in world affairs for the next two hundred years.

The Protestant Reformation: The Protestant Reformation represented the fragmentation of the Roman Catholic Church which had dominated European religion for over eight hundred years. The Catholic Church had been the single unifying factor of the continent, among people who spoke different languages and were part of separate cultures. That unifying force itself soon became part of a greater religious whole.

The reformation began in Wittenberg, Germany when a Catholic Monk and Professor of Scripture, Martin Luther, attached the Catholic practice of the sale of indulgences, a process by which one’s time in purgatory (or the time of loved ones who had already died) could be shortened by the purchase of an indulgence from the church. Although laudable in appearance, indulgences became part of a money making scheme and often lent themselves to corrupt practices.

Luther’s objection arose when a Franciscan monk, Johan Tetzel, sold indulgences for the erection of a basilica at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Tetzel, who had all the hard sell talents of a used car salesmen. He reportedly sang a jingle as part of the sale:

                    Whenever a coin in the coffer rings
                    Another soul from Purgatory springs.

Luther attacked the sale by saying that faith alone was necessary for salvation. (The church had maintained that faith and good works were necessary. Indulgences were considered a good work.) Luther’s attack came in the form of a proposed debate, his famous Ninety Five Theses. (Contrary to popular belief, he did not nail them to the door of the Church; but rather mailed them to the resident Archbishop.)

Luther’s efforts were enormously aided by the invention of the printing press by Johan Gutenberg. The printing press made the cheap publication of printed matter possible. As a result, Luther’s ideas were soon published all over Europe to an increasingly literate public. His efforts led to a number of his supporters and critics who took their own works to the press, which kept religious treatises in circulation for over a century. Luther also attacked what he considered the abuses of the church. He called for the closure of monasteries; translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular; (local language dialects ;) and the end of the authority of priests and the Pope. Luther advocated the "priesthood of all believers;" the concept that one did not need a priest, let alone the Pope, to intervene with the almighty in his behalf.

Luther’s movement became enormously popular, primarily in the German states, sometimes for religious reasons; at other times because it offered German princes an opportunity to free themselves from Papal control.

A second reformation for political reasons occurred in England when Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, because she could not give him a male heir. When the Pope refused the divorce, Henry declared himself the supreme head of the Anglican Church. Over time, particularly after Henry’s death, Protestant doctrine separated the Anglican Church completely from the Roman church.

A third religious movement began in France with the work of John Calvin. Calvin, a Protestant lawyer, left France to avoid persecution and soon controlled the city of Geneva Switzerland. In 1536 he published his most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he argued that all humanity was born condemned by sin; but God had predetermined certain individuals from the beginning of the world to be saved, the doctrine of predestination. From Geneva, which Calvin ruled as a virtual theocracy, missionaries were sent to France, Germany and the Low Countries. Many established churches in other areas, notably in the Netherlands and in Scotland, the latter as the result of Calvin’s disciple, John Knox. The success of the Protestant Reformation made return to a unified Catholic Europe impossible.

The Catholic Reformation: The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation by reforming itself. Its reformation is often called the Counterreformation. The Reformation began with the calling of the Council of Trent, an assembly of bishops, cardinals, and other church officials which met intermittently between 1545 and 1563. The Council determined that some abuses had occurred, and banned the sale of indulgences, but in other matters reaffirmed basic Catholic doctrine. It did require church officials to observe strict standards of morality and to establish seminaries to properly educate parish priests.

A second successful reformation of the Church occurred with the founding of The Society of Jesus in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, whose members became known as Jesuits. Jesuit priests received a rigorous education in theology, classical languages, history, science, and literature. They became exceptionally effective missionaries, who often served as counselors to kings. They were the most prominent Catholic missionaries in and outside Europe. As a result of their actions, the Catholic Church experienced renewed growth; although Protestant areas tended to remain Protestant. Jesuits were also effective missionaries in the Americas, the Philippines, Japan and China.

An Age of Witch hunts and Religious Warfare: With religious conflict, the belief in witches, which had long existed in Europe, became prominent. The people of Europe had long believed that Witches caused illnesses, afflicted animals, and made men impotent. They were believed to fly at night on greased broomsticks to witch’s Sabbaths, where they feasted on the flesh of newborn infants and engaged in perverted sexual orgies with the devil. Most accused were women, although men were often accused also.

European witch hunts began in earnest when Pope Innocent VIII, believing that witchcraft had made him impotent, commissioned two Dominican Monks to inquire. The result was the famous Malleus Malificarum, or "hammer of witches," which became the handbook of those seeking to ferret them out. As a result of witch hunts and suspicion, over 60,000 people were either hanged or burned at the stake. The hunts also broke out in America, notably in the town of Salem where 36 people were convicted and executed by hanging. The Witch hunts in Europe and America both waned after 1700. The last execution for witchcraft was in 1782 in Switzerland.

Religious warfare frequently resulted as a result of religious differences. Various rulers championed either Catholic of Protestant causes and often fought each other. Philip II of Spain, as champion of the Catholic Church attempted to unseat the Protestant Elizabeth II of England by sending a huge fleet, the Spanish Armada to invade England. The English sent fire ships into the midst of the Spanish fleet which destroyed many ships while the remainder were blown off course.

The Netherlands, which were part of Spain, also revolted as part of a religious conflict. By 1610, the seven Northern provinces became independent as the United Provinces of the Netherlands, while the ten southern provinces, notably Belgium, remained Catholic.

The last major religious war was the Thirty Years War, which erupted when the Holy Roman Empire attempted to force Protestant Bohemia to return to Catholicism. The war soon involved most of Europe, including the Spanish, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Poles. It was the most destructive war in Europe until World War I; and at its end with the Peace of Westphalia, no ground was gained nor no religious conversions made.

The Consolidation of Sovereign States: Religious movements offered rulers of various areas of Europe the opportunity to build strong states and enhance their political authority. Although many acted from strong religious conviction, the chance to strengthen their position was also a factor. The rise of sovereign nation states also saw the Holy Roman Empire fall into confusion and disorder.

The Holy Roman Empire had exerted authority only over Germany, and had met some opposition from local princes even there. During the reign of Charles V, it appeared the Empire might rejuvenate itself as a true empire. Charles was a member of the house of Hapsburg, from which all Holy Roman Emperors had come since 1273. The Empire had gained influence over a number of European lands through a series of advantageous marriage alliances, giving rise to the expression, "let others make wars, thou happy Austria, marry." Through marriage alliances the Empire ruled by Charles included large portions of Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, parts of Italy, Switzerland, and Peru.

Even so, Charles was unable to establish a lasting legacy. Most of his attention was devoted to fighting Lutheran movements. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles considered himself the defender of the Catholic Church. His army was used mostly to put down rebellions rather than extend his Empire. The prospect of a powerful Holy Roman Empire gave rise to opposition from all corners. France, surrounded by Hapsburg lands, feared that Charles would attempt to incorporate it into the Empire. French Kings, although also Catholic allied with the Muslim Ottoman Empire in opposing Charles. The Ottomans, under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, conquered Hungary in 1536 and even reached the gates of Vienna. They managed to impose rule on Egypt and most of Northern Africa, and as a result threatened Italian and Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean. Foreign and domestic problems proved too much for Charles, and in 1556 he abdicated to spend his last days in a monastery. He bestowed Spain to his son, Philip II and the remainder of the Empire to his brother, Ferdinand.

As the Empire was unable to exert authority, France, England and Spain emerged as powerful nation states in Europe. Monarchs in these countries were able to resist the power of the nobles and build powerful monarchies for themselves. The new monarchs included Henry VIII of England; Louis XI and later Francis I of France; and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. All developed new sources of money to build their treasuries: Spain and France did so by new taxes, primarily a sales tax. Henry VIII, after separating the English church from Rome, closed all Catholic monasteries in England and seized their lands and assets. The result was a financial windfall. With the closure of the monasteries, care for the poor and orphans became the responsibility of the crown rather than the church. With their new found wealth, France and Spain established standing armies equipped with cannon, which the nobility could not match. English monarchs managed to increase their power without the need of a standing army; they forced nobles to comply by subjecting them to the King’s courts of justice.

The most pervasive means of using religion to advance state policy was the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition had begun in 1273 under Pope Gregory IX. Its purpose was to "inquire" into heresy and stamp it out. In 1478, Ferdinand and Isabella requested and received permission from the Church to revive it. Originally intended to ferret out those who practiced Islam or Judaism, it was also used against Protestants. Officers of the Inquisition, known as Inquisitors, had broad powers to investigate allegations of heresy. They were not as ruthless as they have often been portrayed; however they were relentless if they suspected heresy. Those suspected were often given an opportunity to relent, and were expected to name others. Those who refused to do either were often hanged or burned at the stake. Others were imprisoned. The Inquisition had political consequences; as no Spanish noblemen dared embrace Protestantism and thereby challenge the authority of the King and Queen.

Constitutionalism and Absolutism: Rulers in England and the Netherlands, rather than assume absolute rule, were forced to share authority with representative institutions such as the English Parliament. In other areas, monarchs ruled absolutely.

England and the Dutch Republics had (and still have) unwritten constitutions which recognize the rights of individuals as opposed to the state. The English constitution arose after the English Civil War in which King Charles I was charged with treason and beheaded, and subsequently when James II was forced to abdicate in favor of his Brother in Law and Sister, William of Orange and Mary. Before the latter assumed power, Parliament forced them to sign the English Bill of Rights protecting the rights of English citizens. Representative assemblies in the Dutch republic governed there. In both areas, merchants were prominent in political affairs. Businessmen were able to pursue economic interests without royal intervention, although they often enjoyed some degree of protection. It was these same commercial interests that promoted English and Dutch exploration and settlement in America and Asia. While they enjoyed the protection of the crown, the crown benefited from the taxes paid on their earnings.

In other areas, monarchs ruled absolutely, based on the theory of Divine Right. This theory held that the King’s authority derived from God and he answered to no one else. To disobey the King was to disobey God’s emissary. The theory was most successful in France, where a church official, Cardinal Richelieu served as minister to Louis XIII from 1624 t0 1642. Richelieu crushed attempts by nobles to limit the King’s authority and established a governmental bureaucracy staffed by commissioners loyal to the king. (Previously, administrative functions had been performed by nobles.) He also ruthlessly attacked French Calvinists, known as Huguenots.

The most powerful of European absolute monarchs was Louis XIV, often known as le roi soleil—"the sun King." Louis reputedly once said, l’etat, c’est moi—"I am the state." Louis built a lavish palace at Versailles and encouraged the nobility to attend him there. Life at Versailles was the essence of grandeur and lavish living. Louis provided the nobility with entertainment and luxurious accommodations while he ran the country. He supported new industries, encouraged exports, and waged a series of wars to enlarge French possessions, mostly without success. France became the model of absolutism and rulers of Austria, Prussia and Russia attempted to imitate Louis’ example. While they build powerful states, Prussia and Russia adopted French as the language of Court. Aside from Louis, Philip II of Spain ruled Spain as an absolute monarch; however his expenses exceeded his revenue, and on several occasions he was forced to repudiate his debts.

As European monarchs strengthened their kingdoms and on occasion attempted to extend their territory, wars inevitably resulted. The Thirty Years War, although fought over religious principles, was such a war. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) which ended the war, established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio—whose rule, his religion. This allowed European monarchs to choose the religion of their own domain. Other wars frequently erupted, such as the War of the Spanish Succession, during which Louis XIV attempted to make his grandson King of Spain, and the Seven Years War. In each instance, several European powers allied against others in order to prevent one or both from increasing its power and territory. Both were part of a group of several wars which spilled over into North America and other parts of the world.

Shifting alliances between European powers to prevent domination by a single power illustrates the concept of balance of power. The principle became the foundation of European diplomacy. This prevented the rise of large empires (as had been the case with the Romans and Mongols) and kept Europe a series of independent sovereign states. In order to maintain that balance of power, European states worked vigorously to maintain modern armies and navies. Military academies and sophisticated weaponry were soon developed. At the same time, China, India and Islamic nations did not have the same incentive to maintain military power; rather they maintained sufficient forces to maintain order within their own borders. In Europe, however, failure to keep up with advancements in artillery and military force might subject one to defeat on the battlefield. The end result was that by the eighteenth century, European armaments were the most efficient in the world.

The Growth of Capitalism: American food crops, primarily the potato, improved European diets and resistance to disease. The Bubonic Plague declined (although it did not completely disappear), and smallpox, dysentery, and typhus receded. The decrease in mortality resulted in a large increase in the European population, although the population declined during the Thirty Years War in which a third of the population died. Between 1700 and 1800, the population increased by 50 per cent to 180 million. Rapid population growth led to the growth of city populations, a practice known as urbanization. Cities such as London, Paris, and Madrid grew rapidly.

Population growth and urbanization led to rapid economic development which coincided with the birth of capitalism, an economic practice whereby private individuals are free to sell goods and services and in which competition determines price. Under capitalism, private individuals own the land, machinery and materials needed to produce products. The essence of the system is a free market in which prices are determined by supply and demand. Capitalism was first described by Adam Smith in his work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. With the rise of capitalism, businessmen learned to take advantage of market conditions, build transportation and communication systems and maximize profits. Banks arose in major cities as capitalist enterprises. They held funds in safekeeping, and also made loans to merchants. They published reports on prices and demand for products as well as political news which might benefit their depositors. Insurance companies were formed to insure against losses, and stock markets were formed where one might buy and sell an interest in joint stock companies, discussed earlier.

Since English and Dutch political systems recognized the right of individuals to own private property, their governments worked to protect them. They chartered joint stock companies, and authorized some to explore and colonize. Examples are the Dutch and English East India Companies, authorized to wage war to protect their interests. The primary motive of the joint stock companies previously discussed was, of course, profit for their investors.

New methods of manufacture were also developed as a result of capitalist practices. Previously, craft guilds had protected markets and protected the interests of their members. They often discouraged competition and technological improvements. Capitalist merchants, in an effort to side step the guilds, moved production to the countryside. There, they organized the putting out system by which unfinished products, such as raw wool, were delivered to rural households. The residents of the home would then spin the wool, or perform such other tasks as were necessary, such as weaving or sewing. They were then paid by the merchant for their work based a "piece system," (a set price for each unit delivered) and the finished product was then sold on the open market. The putting out system was useful for textiles, pots, nails, and many other goods. The pay to rural workers was usually low, and merchants then realized handsome profits. This was the first step toward industrialization; the time is often called the "age of protoindustrialization." The wealth earned by Capitalist entrepreneurs proved to be foundations of a truly global economy.

While the putting out system brought money to rural areas, it undermined traditional life in those areas. The standard of living accordingly increased, with people in the countryside eating better, wearing better clothes, and drinking better wine. Moral challenges also arose as a result of this new prosperity. The Church had often condemned large profits; it had forbidden the loaning of money for interest as "usury," a sin. The lifeblood of capitalism was profit, however. Bankers would not risk loans unless profit was likely. Chief among those who worked to change this system was Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, who argued that society would prosper when individuals pursued their own economic interests. There were problems, however. As people pursued their own interests and did not help those who fell on hard times, their actions were considered as selfish. Social strain developed quickly, and violence in the form of banditry and robbery often developed. There is some argument among historians that the entire witch hysteria resulted from envy of women who had become financially independent.

Capitalism did work in favor of the nuclear family, the husband, wife and child. Love rather than matchmaking became the basis of marriages; and affection between parents and children became important. (Previously, parents were admonished not to grow close to their children, as many of them would die very young.) It would be unfair to credit capitalism as the cause of these developments, but it certainly helped define the nature and role of the family.

The Enlightenment: The Enlightenment represents a time when European scholars rejected classical authority from the Middle Ages and studied the natural world. They attempted to understand it in terms of observation and mathematical reasoning. The result was a dramatic overhaul of scientific thinking and the birth of modern science as a discipline. Its effects were so pervasive that many intellectuals attempted to change moral social and political thought by adopting scientific methods, and relying on reason. The end result was the weakening of the influence of religion and the development of strictly secular values.

Revised Concept of the Universe: The medieval concept of the Universe had been based on the work of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek scholar at Alexandria, who published the Algamast, a work which attempted to explain it. Ptolemy theorized that the universe was geocentric; the earth stood motionless but surrounded by nine concentric spheres which revolved around it, each successively larger and enclosing the sphere which preceded it; a series of circles within circles. Each of the first seven had one of the observable heavenly bodies, the sun, moon and five known planets (Saturn was considered the outermost planet.) Each body was embedded in the shell of its sphere. The eighth sphere contained the stars and the ninth sphere was empty other than enclosing the other eight. Beyond the ninth sphere, Christian astronomers believed was heaven, and the throne of God. They also believed, as did Ptolemy that the heavenly bodies consisted of a matter not found on earth; a matter that did not experience change or corruption, and not subject to the laws of nature. They all followed perfectly circular orbits in revolving around the earth. The problem, of course, is that as astronomers traced the movements of heavenly bodies, they appeared erratic. Had they traveled in perfect circles, their movements could be calculated mathematically, but this proved impossible.

Ptolemy’s work was first questioned by Tycho Brae, an adventurer who determined that the movement of the planets was erratic by nature, a process he called "precession." The matter was finally resolved in 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, who published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, in which he argued that the solar system was heliocentric, with the sun at its center, and all the planets, including the earth, revolving around it. (Planet came from the Greek planetes, "wanderer." His work was attacked, primarily by the church. By demoting the earth to the status of an ordinary planet, he had seemingly reduced its status as the home of man, God’s greatest creation. Not coincidentally, his arguments contradicted those of Aristotle, who had believed in a geocentric universe. Ironically, Copernicus was a religious man who dedicated his work to the Pope. Even so, he was cautious enough to see that it was not published until his death.

The Scientific Revolution: Although Copernicus’ ideas were challenged by the church, a number of scientists and scholars relied on them to consider the possibility that the earth and science—both mechanical and astronomical—could be explained mathematically. Copernicus had in fact believed that the orbits of the planets were perfect circles, but this could not be explained. After the death of Copernicus, Johannes Kepler argued that the orbits of the planets were elliptical. He could thus explain the movements of stars and planets mathematically. (Kepler worked it all out on paper; he never used a telescope.) He also argued that that the universe was not static, but in a constant state of flux. Galileo Galilei used a telescope (which he did not invent, but which was new) and saw spots on the sun and mountains on the moon. This disproved the Ptolemaic thinking that planets were smooth perfectly spherical bodies. He also observed four moons orbiting Jupiter and saw previously unknown stars, implying that the universe was much larger than previously thought. Galileo also performed a number of physical experiments, demonstrating that the velocity of falling bodies depended upon the distance from which they fell, not their weight; and anticipated the law of inertia. As Copernicus before him, Galileo’s work was challenged by church authorities. He ultimately was forced to recant under threat of torture and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The new scientific approach came to full fruition in the work of Sir Isaac Newton, an Oxford Scholar who published Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy") in 1687. Newton argued that a law of universal gravitation controlled all movement in the universe, both that of the heavenly bodies and objects below. The father of Calculus, Newton showed that all movement within the physical universe could be explained mathematically. Based on Newton’s work, other scientists worked on new approaches to understanding such elements of science as anatomy, chemistry, and biology. Among these, Sir Francis Bacon is credited with the development of the Scientific Method of Inquiry.

Newton was actually a very religious man. His argument was that the principles he discovered only proved the greatness of God in creating such a complex universe. At his death, he was buried in Westminster Cathedral, a rare honor.

The Enlightenment: Newton’s work led others to conclude that even human behavior could be explained rationally. The result was the abandonment of Aristotelian philosophy as well as Christian principles as unquestioned authority and attempts to explain the natural world rationally. Their work resulted in a movement called the Enlightenment, by which they believed mankind moved from darkness to the light of knowledge.

Among Enlightenment thinkers was John Locke, who argued that all human knowledge comes from the senses; and the Baron de Montesquieu, who first argued for a science of politics and for political liberty.

Enlightenment thought was centered in France, where intellectual thinkers became known as philosophes. (philosophers) Unlike previous philosophers, they addressed their work to an educated public, rather than to scholars. Among the more famous philosophes was Francois-Marie Arouet who wrote under the pseudonym Voltaire. He championed individual human rights; his favorite target was any institution which oppressed humanity, including the Church, which he argued had committed more crimes against humanity than any other organization, and the French monarchy. His work was often satirical and bitter, often uttering his favorite phrase, écrasez l’infame—"crush the infamous thing."

When the French government once proposed to save money by reducing the number of horses kept in the royal stables, Voltaire suggested it would be more effective to get rid of the asses who rode the horses.

Most philosophes (but not all) were deists, who believed that God existed, but was more of a great watchmaker who had set the universe in motion, and did not involve himself in the affairs of humanity. God had rather created a universe to run by itself according to rational and natural laws of nature. They denied the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus as irrational.

The philosophes were generally optimistic about humanity and the future of the world. They believed that knowledge would lead humanity to advance and introduce a new era of progress. Progress became something of their watchword. Although this dream was not realized, enlightenment thought did weaken the influence of the Church (but did not destroy it) and encouraged the development of secular values based on reason rather than revelation. IT also encouraged political and cultural leaders to subject society to rational analysis and promote progress. Enlightenment thought today continues to influence European and American thought.