Post-classical history

CHAPTER 14
Humanism and the Reformation

By the time Constantinople fell in 1453, the Pope was back in Rome after his sojourn in Avignon and better still, there was only one of him. However, the popes of the late fifteenth century were among the worst in history. They battled for secular power in Italy while using the wealth of the Church to fund lavish parties and building projects. The Vatican was a den of vice and corruption. On the plus side, the profligacy of the papacy and the rest of the Italian nobility provided the funds necessary to produce the artistic jewels of quattrocento Italy as each city tried to outdo the others in flamboyance. The best painters, sculptors and architects were held in high esteem and the need to produce more and more remarkable art drove innovation. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) designed the spectacular dome that tops Florence’s cathedral and was the first to codify the technique of perspective.1 Painting was further improved when vegetable oil became the medium of choice for artists. Oil paints allowed for a greater depth of colour than the earlier egg-based pigments. All these innovations resulted in art so dazzling that later generations dubbed the entire period the Renaissance.

The Rise of Humanism

As we have already seen, historians have a tendency to give value-laden names to historical periods. These help to fix popular perceptions of the period in question. And, if the name catches on, other historians co-opt it to their own periods. We have met two renaissances so far, the Carolingian renaissance under the Emperor Charlemagne and the resurgence of scholarship during the twelfth century. The period that everybody means by ‘the’ Renaissance lasted roughly from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. The French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) first coined the term in the 1850s, but it took Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) from Switzerland to turn it into common currency in his seminal work The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).2Michelet and Burckhardt both strongly contrasted the rebirth of culture in the fifteenth century with medieval stagnation. As Burckhardt claimed: ‘In the Middle Ages, both sides of the human consciousness lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil.’3He went on to suggest that the Renaissance was the period in which individuality conquered the herd mentality of the previous era. It need hardly be said that much of this analysis was inaccurate, and recent scholarship has largely discredited it. The Renaissance was as much an age of faith as the Middle Ages and, if anything, even more superstitious and violent.

The desire to look back to Greece and Rome was the true mark of the Renaissance, which in many ways was a conservative movement attempting to recapture an imaginary past rather than march forward. It was a time when, in order to be up to date in writing or architecture, artists had to model their work on a prototype that was over 1,000 years old.

In literature, humanism typified this trend. ‘Humanism’ is yet another word that was invented in the nineteenth century, but it derives from a historical group of people in the Renaissance who studied the humanities.4 Modern historians have piled all sorts of concepts on top of humanism and almost succeeded in turning a helpful term into a useless abstraction. Even more recently, non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word ‘humanist’ to mean a softer version of ‘atheist’. A fifteenth- or sixteenth-century humanist was simply someone who was interested in classical Greek and Latin literature. They felt that medieval Latin was an ugly and barbaric tongue best replaced by the pure Latin of the ancients. Their paragon was the Roman orator Cicero (106–43BC) whose language they believed to be the most cultured and stylish.5 In fact, by insisting on maintaining Latin in its fossilised classical form, the humanists went a long way towards killing it as a living language. Medieval Latin was untidy precisely because it was a spoken language that could be adapted to new situations as they arose. No one had ever spoken formal Latin as Cicero wrote it. In seeking to turn back the clock, humanists thought they were at the cutting edge of innovation, but they were really incorrigible reactionaries.

Some humanists were so convinced that nothing good could have come out of the early Middle Ages that they mistook ninth-century manuscripts in caroline miniscule for genuine classical artefacts.6 These products of the reign of Charlemagne often represent the earliest extant copies of Latin literature. It never occurred to Renaissance humanists that there might have been any interest in preserving them during the so-called Dark Ages.

The one positive achievement with which the humanists are indelibly associated is the reintroduction of ancient Greek into western Europe. After an absence of 1,000 years, mere translations were no longer enough for westerners. They wanted to drink Greek literature from the original fountain. To do this, they needed teachers. Luckily, the Byzantine Empire’s collapse precipitated an influx of Greek speakers in search of work.7 After a slow start, knowledge of Greek became de rigueur for anyone who wanted to appear cultured. The universities started to teach it and printers cut new type so that they could mass-produce the Greek classics with the right letters. A great argument began, still ongoing, about the correct method of pronunciation. For those unable to master the language, almost the entire body of classical Greek literature was rendered into Latin. Although a good deal of Greek philosophy and science had been translated during the twelfth century, much of it remained unknown in the West. The epics of Homer (fl. eighth century BC), the Iliad and Odyssey, became widely available for the first time. By 1600, nearly the entire corpus of surviving Greek and Latin writing was in print.

The most significant writer to become available to a Latin-reading audience for the first time in the fifteenth century was Plato. His influence on Renaissance thought was profound and long-lasting. Throughout antiquity, it was Plato whom the Greeks regarded as their leading thinker.

In the Middle Ages, both Islamic and Catholic scholars preferred ‘the Philosopher’ Aristotle. This changed in the fifteenth century when manuscripts of the dialogues of Plato arrived in Italy. His brilliance was immediately obvious to the humanists. Furthermore, his works are polished and complete examples of classical Greek prose. Unlike Aristotle’s surviving rough drafts, they are literary as well as philosophical masterpieces. This made them all the more appealing to the humanist scholars, who were interested in style as well as substance.

The greatest of Renaissance Platonists, Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), not only translated the dialogues into Latin, but also developed an entire theological system that tried to demonstrate how Plato was the heir to an ancient tradition of mystical wisdom that anticipated many of the doctrines of Christianity. We saw in chapter 2 how early Christian fathers like Augustine of Hippo had been aficionados of Plato because his philosophy seemed easy to combine with Christianity. Because Ficino’s theology owed much to the Platonic philosophy of late antiquity, a craze for so-called neo-Platonism swept Europe.8

The subject in which Ficino thought that Plato most clearly surpassed Aristotle was the immortality of the soul.9 At the start of the twelfth century, Amaury and his followers had denied personal immortality on the strength of Aristotle’s book On the Soul. Later in the same century the Averröists, also basing their ideas on Aristotle, suggested that the immortal element of each person was not unique to them. Instead of having our own souls, all of mankind participated in a hive intellect to which we returned after death. Any concept of posthumous judgement by God evaporated if people had no individuality after death. However, despite their religious beliefs, Christian scholars were unwilling to throw away Aristotle’s On the Soul because it was an extremely interesting analysis of the psychology of all living things. It is more a book about how the mind works than what the soul is. Once again, Thomas Aquinas had come to the rescue with an effective combination of Christian and Aristotelian views. Aristotle’s science of the mind was separated from his dubious theology and took its place as one of the key texts of natural philosophy. This left the immortality of the soul exclusively within the purview of faith.

Ficino thought he could do better than this. He wanted philosophical proof of life after death and thought that, through Plato, he had found it. Unfortunately, Ficino relied on a dubious theory that Plato had inherited an ancient tradition ultimately derived from Moses. It was an easy matter to tear apart Ficino’s assertions and show that whatever Plato believed about the soul, he never proved it.

A professor of philosophy at the university of Padua, Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), wrote a refutation of Ficino’s ideas that sought to preserve the traditional demarcation between philosophy and religion. He wrote:

It seems to me that in this matter, keeping the saner view, we must say that the question of the immortality of the soul is a neutral problem, like that of the eternity of the world. For it seems to me that no natural reasons can be brought forth proving that the soul is immortal, and still less proving that the soul is mortal.10

He concluded, ‘Plato wrote so many and such great things about the immortality of the soul. Yet, I think that he did not possess certainty.’11

To some Christians, this was a grave disappointment. They desperately wanted rational proof for religious claims and looked upon Pomponazzi’s conclusions as an affront. In an effort to reassure Christian opinion, the Church had already officially declared that the soul was indeed immortal in 1513.12 There was even an attempt to trump up heresy charges against Pomponazzi. He survived the assault and Platonism never managed to displace Aristotle at the universities. For the humanists who had lauded Plato this was a setback, but it did not mark the end of their efforts to reform intellectual culture.

The Destruction of Medieval Scholarship

As far as humanists were concerned, the principal rule of philology was always ‘the older the better’. Therefore they cast aside medieval corrections and commentaries, along with plenty of medieval mistakes. They castigated Pliny, writing in the first century AD, as late and unreliable compared to Aristotle who wrote 400 years earlier. The best place to look for knowledge, humanists said, was not in the real world but in the most ancient writings. The French essayist, Michael de Montaigne (1533–92), reported meeting a humanist of Pisa who assured him that ‘the touchstone and measuring-scale of all sound ideas and each and every truth, lie in their conformity with the teaching of Aristotle, outside of which all is inane and chimerical: Aristotle has seen everything, done everything.’13

Renaissance humanists’ obsession with the classics led them to search out the lost works of the ancients. They scoured dusty monastic libraries for forgotten books and sent travellers to the remnants of the Byzantine Empire to bring back Greek manuscripts. The trouble was, they also cleared away the vast bulk of medieval commentaries that had expanded on and criticised Aristotle’s thought. They did not recognise that medieval writers had made great advances. As far as humanists were concerned, medieval thinkers were far too recent to have produced anything worthwhile. Scholasticism was undeserving of their attention and so they dumped it. The effect was rapid and nearly disastrous for natural philosophy.

Medieval logic or ‘dialectic’ was the first subject to go. Some humanists were not sure that logic was worth studying at all. Even if it was, they felt that Aristotle must have covered everything anyone needed to know. During the Middle Ages, logicians had in fact taken dialectic well beyond the achievements of the Greeks towards an advanced logic that was not rediscovered until the nineteenth century.14 This was very hard to master and so deeply unpopular with students. By the mid-sixteenth century, it was off the syllabus and practically forgotten.

Theology survived little better. Protestants, as we will see, wanted nothing to do with medieval Catholic thought. Catholics themselves did not go quite so far, but the Reformation caused them to reconsider a great deal of their doctrine. As a result, they decided to enshrine Thomas Aquinas as the official theologian of the Church. The writings of most of those who had followed him, such as John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, became marginalised. Few philosophers have seen their reputations plummet as far as Scotus. In the sixteenth century, humanists condemned him as the worst of scholastic obscurants. Thomas Cromwell (c.1485–1540), the adviser to Henry VIII (1491–1547) who was responsible for dissolving England’s monasteries, banned Scotus’s work from Oxford in 1535. Cromwell’s cronies boasted that they had pulled the manuscripts of his work from the libraries and used them as lavatory paper.15 Perhaps the worst indignity Duns Scotus suffered is that the word ‘dunce’ is a play on his name. It seems that the only thing he had done to deserve all this was to be too difficult for later readers to understand. The situation in Italy was just as bad. There, Richard Swineshead was dubbed the medieval bogeyman-in-chief. One humanist moaned about ‘inane Swinesheadism’, while another ranted ‘I am filled with horror even at the mention of his name.’16

In natural philosophy, the humanists were again convinced that they would find everything worth knowing in the work of Aristotle and other ancient authors. Medieval writers were neglected as the humanist agenda swept all before it. Oxford, proud of the tradition of the Merton Calculators, resisted the rise of humanism longer than many universities. A student reading natural philosophy at Oxford in around 1510 would most likely have used a textbook written by a Parisian theologian called Thomas Bricot (d.1516). He was a nominalist follower of William of Ockham whose book was obviously popular.17 It was reprinted at least eight times in three different cities. He was familiar with the work of medieval scholars and included cross-references to his famous predecessors at Paris including John Buridan. Students using Bricot’s textbook would have covered impetus theory and learnt about the defects of Aristotle’s mechanics.18

Then humanism wiped the slate clean of scholastic authors. After 1523, Bricot’s book was not reprinted anywhere again. At Oxford, Cromwell banned him in 1535 at the same time as he outlawed the work of Duns Scotus. As for Buridan himself, his natural philosophy suffered a similar fate and was never reprinted after 1518 until modern times.

In comparison, an Oxford student studying natural philosophy in 1560 would probably have used a textbook by Johann Velcurio of Germany (d.1534). This is admittedly an easier read than Bricot’s effort, at least for those who can handle Latin. However, its success was more likely due to Velcurio being a partisan of Luther19 and to the fact that he completely ignores medieval writers. Instead, he refers almost exclusively to Aristotle and other classical authors, together with the Bible. His book was extremely popular, going through nineteen editions before 1600. Unfortunately, a student who used it would have been unaware that there had been any advance on Aristotle’s ideas during the Middle Ages.

To add insult to injury, historians have long assumed that the frequent attacks on Aristotelians in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were aimed at the obduracy of medieval natural philosophy. For instance, Galileo tells the following story in his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), an important book that will feature again in chapter 21. To understand the story, it is necessary to know that Aristotle believed that the nervous system centred on the heart and not the brain. ‘One day’, Galileo tells us, speaking through a character in the dialogue, ‘I was at the home of a very famous doctor of Venice.’ While he was there, the doctor was carrying out an anatomical dissection. Galileo continues:

He happened to be investigating the source and origin of the nerves. The anatomist showed the great bundle of nerves leaving the brain and passing through the neck, extending down the spine and branching out through the whole body. Only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. The anatomist had been exhibiting and demonstrating everything with unusual care because he knew one of those present was a follower of Aristotle. Turning to him, the anatomist asked whether he was finally satisfied that nerves originated in the brain and not the heart. The Aristotelian thought for a while before he said, ‘You have shown me this so clearly that I would be forced to admit that you were right, if only Aristotle himself did not contradict you.’20

Generations of historians believed that this story and Montaigne’s anecdote were aimed at the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages. Only recently has it become apparent that their targets were one-eyed Aristotelian humanists who had completely lost the medieval critical attitude towards the Philosopher.

The Loss of Manuscripts

In combination with printing, humanism had one other damaging effect. As printed books replaced manuscripts, the old tomes became waste paper. Combined with the changes in taste and the lack of interest in medieval writing, this meant that entire libraries could disappear. Sometime between 1535 and 1558, Oxford University contrived to lose every single manuscript in its collection and even sold off the bookcases.21 Merton College, home of the Calculators, threw out three quarters of its ancient library, as many as 900 manuscripts, in the same period.22 These were not burned because they were made of valuable vellum. Instead, the college handed them over to bookbinders who cut them up and used them to make covers for newly purchased printed books. Today, it is still commonplace to find the beautiful calligraphy of a medieval manuscript glued into the covers of a sixteenth-century printed book.

In traditional histories, the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as ‘a good thing’, but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. By discarding the advances made by medieval scholars together with so many of the manuscripts that contained them, they could have set back the advance of science by centuries. Einstein might have had to do the work of Newton. The reason that progress in science was not so held back (although it arguably didn’t move forward as quickly as it might have done) was that the invention of printing had guaranteed that, if nothing else, the old books were preserved. Most people forgot about them but a few, like Galileo, used the knowledge found within.

In the religious sphere, humanists’ interest in the ancient sources meant that they encouraged reading the scriptures in their original languages of Greek and Hebrew. The Bible that everyone had read during the Middle Ages was the Vulgate of Saint Jerome (c.340–420) that he had completed during the fourth century AD. The name ‘Vulgate’ comes from the fact that it was written in the ‘vulgar’ Latin of the common people. Jerome had deliberately done this to make his work as widely accessible as possible. Of course, 1,000 years later, Latin was no longer an everyday language and only educated people could understand the Bible. By then, however, the Catholic Church had canonised the Vulgate, sanctified by age, as the authoritative version of the Bible. It viewed freelance attempts to work from the original languages with some suspicion. Instead, it set up an official project in Spain where a crack team of academics produced the Complutensian Polygot Bible, which included Old and New Testaments in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic.23

This laborious process was too slow for some humanists. When this project was finally completed, it was overshadowed by the publication in 1516 of a Greek New Testament in Paris prepared by the most famous humanist of them all, Desiderius Erasmus (1469– 1536).24 Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a priest and, like Richard of Wallingford, had been adopted by the Church. He entered a monastery at an early age but, unlike Richard, did not find it to his liking. He escaped by getting a job as a bishop’s secretary, then studied at the university of Paris for several years. He did not enjoy himself much there either. It did provide him, however, with a solid Latin education that served him well when he became a writer in need of patrons. He travelled Europe, visiting England three times, before his published books brought him both enormous fame and moderate fortune. Today, his most widely read book is In Praise of Folly (1511), a biting satire on sixteenth-century religious and secular society. Erasmus, a pacifist and idealist, wanted everyone to live simple Christian lives and sit around discussing the books they had read. In many ways, though, In Praise of Folly is also a typical humanist assault on medieval intellectual and religious life. ‘Those subtle refinements of subtleties’, he wrote of medieval theology,

are made still more subtle by all the different lines of scholastic argument, so that you’d extricate yourself faster from a labyrinth than from the tortuous obscurities of realists, nominalists, Thomists, Albertists, Ockhamists, Scotists – and I’ve not mentioned all the sects, only the main ones.25

Erasmus’s rhetoric was part of a sustained attack on the Catholic Church that soon split Christianity asunder.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was an even more profound revolution in thought than humanism had been. There is no doubt that humanists, like Erasmus, gave the Protestant Reformation some of its initial momentum. Many of them were critical of the Catholic Church but wanted to reform it from the inside. Once Protestants started a formal schism with the papacy, though, that was going too far for some humanists. Erasmus, for example, fell out with Martin Luther (1483–1546) and never abandoned Catholicism.

We date the start of the Reformation to 31 October 1517 when Luther reputedly nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was not in itself an unacceptable thing to do, even if Luther’s contentions were strongly worded, as long as it remained merely an academic exercise conducted in Latin.26 Luther was a fully qualified theologian from the local university and his theses were simply items for debate. But when the theses were translated into German and printed as pamphlets that spread rapidly around Germany, matters quickly escalated. Before long, Luther found himself with strong popular support for taking on the Pope.

His original complaint had been that the Church was selling the forgiveness of sins in exchange for hard cash. However, his thinking rapidly developed into a whole new theology of salvation that insisted that only faith was necessary to reach heaven and that the Catholic penitence industry was an offence against the divine. The remission of sins, he wrote, is a free gift from God and not something that can be earned by our own good deeds. At the same time, he appealed to German nationalism in three short books published around the end of 1520, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity and The Freedom of the Christian Man. He also launched a full-scale attack on rational theology and the domination of Aristotle. Luther preferred his religion to be based purely on faith and the Bible. Before long his efforts at reforming the Church had taken on a life of their own and become a Reformation. Unlike ‘Renaissance’, ‘Reformation’ is a word that people used at the time to describe what they were living through. It is also a highly appropriate term to describe a process of religious change where many of the old certainties dissolved, only to require replacement or re-establishment afterwards.

When Martin Luther came to compose his 95 theses, all of what is now Germany, as well as substantial territories outside it such as Austria and Bohemia, were part of the Holy Roman Empire. From 1519 it was ruled by the hyperactive Emperor Charles V (1500–58), who was also king of Spain. He was fiercely loyal to Catholicism if not to individual Popes. The Empire was a confederation of city-states, duchies and other small principalities which enjoyed a good deal of real independence. That meant that Luther’s followers, and Luther himself, could be sheltered by individual local leaders who had religious or political reasons for harbouring them. Once it was clear that Charles V was on the side of the old Church, Protestantism became closely associated with opposition to the Emperor’s policies. Luther bravely stood up to the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when asked to defend his beliefs. He was granted a certificate of safe-conduct that meant he was immune from arrest and was allowed to leave unmolested once he had stated his case. He was said to have concluded his speech with the famous declaration: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’27 As a summary of his sentiments this is accurate, even if the exact words are apocryphal.

After facing down the Emperor, Luther thought it prudent to spend some time in hiding. Concealed in Wartburg under the protection of the local ruler, Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), Luther busied himself translating the New Testament into German. Soon afterwards, inflamed by radical rhetoric, the rural peasants of southern Germany launched a huge rebellion, which Charles V put down with horrifying brutality. After some procrastination, Luther fully supported the suppression. Neither he nor any of his aristocratic sponsors were interested in drastic social reform.

Protestantism was fragmented from the start. In Switzerland another reformer, the French exile John Calvin (1509–64), worked on his own version of Protestantism, known as the Reformed rather than Lutheran tradition. Lutherans dominated in much of northern Germany and Scandinavia as well as having outposts in Transylvania and Poland. Calvinist or Reformed Protestants formed the backbone of the Dutch, Scots and, after much redefinition, English national churches.

Existing beside these larger denominations were a myriad of smaller sects, some of whom no one else considered Christian at all. About the only matter that all the groups agreed on was hostility towards the Pope and the Catholic Church. The most despised radical sects were the proto-Unitarians who denied the Trinity. Everyone else agreed that the Unitarians were heretics that had to be stamped out. The hostility towards them is exemplified by the famous case of a Spanish doctor by the name of Michael Servetus (1511–53). In trouble with the Spanish Inquisition over his extreme views, he fled to France and trained in Paris under a pseudonym. After qualifying in medicine and still under an assumed name, he started living in Vienne in south-eastern France, where he corresponded with John Calvin and published his book The Restoration of Christianity (1553).

The book infuriated Calvin, to whom Servetus had foolishly sent an advance copy, and he may have leaked the details of Servetus’s secret identity to the local inquisitors of Vienne. Servetus escaped but fled through Geneva where Calvin himself lived. There he was apprehended and, at Calvin’s insistence, executed as a heretic. Not all Protestants agreed with this vicious action, especially the fact that he was burnt alive rather than beheaded, as Calvin would have preferred.28 On the other hand, few people had any sympathy for Servetus’s theological ideas. In later years Servetus’s work on the heart led to him enjoying a reputation as a martyr for science. This is unwarranted because he was executed for purely religious ideas that had nothing to do with anatomy. What the case of Servetus does teach us is that executions for heresy were not a Catholic prerogative. In England, Unitarians continued to be burnt until 1608 and in Scotland a student, Thomas Aikenhead (c.1676–97), was hanged for blasphemy shortly before the end of the seventeenth century.29

The progress of the English Reformation would depend on the opinion of the reigning monarch. King Henry VIII (1491–1547) broke with Rome when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce. Religiously, he remained a Catholic and executed both Protestants and papal loyalists. His son, Edward VI (1537–53), or rather the boy-king’s council, completed the move to a Protestant state on the Swiss model but full-blooded Catholicism was restored on the ascension of his sister, Mary I (1516–58). She earned her nickname of Bloody Mary by burning nearly 300 Protestants as well as forcing many more to flee into exile. Her reign was short and when Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth I (1533–1603), came to the throne after Mary’s death from stomach cancer, she enforced her own moderate Protestant settlement despite complaints from extremists on both sides. She ended up executing as many Catholics as Mary had burnt Protestants, but characterised loyalty to the Pope as treachery rather than heresy – a secular and not a religious crime.

Thus, it was the monarch who determined which way the religion of the country would go. This trend was repeated throughout Europe and was eventually codified in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the treaty that ended the first in a series of wars between Catholics and Protestants. The treaty stipulated that each ruler could decide the religion of his territory but that he would let dissidents move somewhere more congenial if they wished.

After a slow start, Catholicism began to react against the new movements. The Council of Trent (1545–63) began a process of Counter-Reformation by which the Catholic Church stamped out the abuses of absentee or illiterate priests, simony and bribery, concubines and intemperance. Cracking down made the Church into a more authoritarian institution but also strengthened it enough to combat and then turn back the tide of Protestantism. Whereas it had once looked like it would become a minority church, after the Thirty Years War of 1618–48, Catholicism was again on the rise. The only thing that prevented its complete triumph over Protestantism was the inability of France and Spain to get along.

The Theological Foundation of the Reformation

So, what was the Reformation all about? Simplifying enormously, the disagreements between the two Christian denominations were as follows. On the essential matter of how to get to heaven, Catholics believed that it was necessary to both repent of all one’s sins and do penance. The penance could be anything from saying a prayer to going on a lengthy pilgrimage. Luther’s initial objection, of course, was that the penance could take the form of a cash payment to the Church. The system also allowed people to pay the penance on behalf of others, even after they were dead. Lutherans rejected all this in favour of a simple formula – forgiveness came from faith in Jesus Christ. Calvinists also cast off the penance industry but believed that God himself elected who would go to heaven. Human beings just had to hope that they were one of the chosen ones, although being a Calvinist was a pretty good indication that they were.

The other major area of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants was the issue of authority. Protestants thought that they could find everything that they needed to know about religion in the Bible. They called this sola scriptura which means ‘scripture alone’ in Latin. Catholics agreed that the Bible was the most important source of doctrine but said it was not enough. For them, the traditions of the Church were also authoritative, especially those that explained how believers should understand the Bible. Luther countered this by claiming that the meaning of the Bible was obvious to true believers who consequently didn’t need any fancy exegesis. Unfortunately, his argument was belied by the fact that Protestants could not always agree on its interpretation among themselves.

Protestant emphasis on the plain meaning of the biblical text meant that they tended to interpret their Bibles more literally. Catholic theologians had built up a rich tradition of symbolic meanings, especially for those parts that did not make much sense with a literal interpretation. Whether or not this affected attitudes to science is unclear. On the one hand, Biblical literalism would seem to make contradictions between science and scripture more likely. However, on the other hand it has been suggested that Protestants carried over their rejection of metaphor in the Bible into the natural world as well.30 The magical worldview, which saw the world as full of symbols and connections, might seem less convincing to those attracted to literal interpretations. Those who rejected metaphor in the Bible were unlikely to go looking for hidden messages in nature either. Despite this, as we will see in the next chapter, magic was one of the primary beneficiaries of humanism and the Renaissance.

The doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church has led some to suppose that Protestants enjoyed greater intellectual freedom.31 For instance, there was no Protestant Inquisition or list of banned books like the Catholic Index. However, facts on the ground do not substantiate the claim that Protestants were freer or that freedom is a prerequisite for scientific progress. Religious toleration, when it finally came, was a result of exhaustion rather than any enlightened philosophical programme. In the seventeenth century, the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War as armies marched back and forth across Germany, coupled with a series of civil wars in the British Isles, made the acceptance of other religious points of view a pragmatic necessity. At least everyone could console themselves with the belief that their opponents were bound for Hell in the next world even if they could not be eliminated from this one.

Protestantism and Science

Historians have devoted plenty of attention to the question of how the Reformation affected the rise of science. In the nineteenth century, the pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) suggested that the spirit of individualism and the work ethic of the Puritans, members of an ascetic branch of Protestantism, was one of the central factors in the rise of capitalism.32

In 1938, Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) enhanced the thesis by suggesting that Puritanism was also a crucial cause of the new scientific philosophy in seventeenth-century England.33 Merton found that some Puritan beliefs promoted manual work. By valuing craftsmanship as much as scholarship, Puritans encouraged natural philosophers to get their hands dirty with experiments. As we have seen, experimentation had almost no part in medieval scientific practice.

Not all historians have been convinced by this. Firstly, Merton’s critics felt that he had drawn the definition of Puritanism too widely and so included many people who would not identify themselves as such. Secondly, many of what he took to be specifically Puritan religious reasons for studying God’s creation were actually common to all Christians. If you read seventeenth-century Catholic science or indeed anything from the Middle Ages, you will find exactly the same ideas. The desire to worship God by actively studying his creation is a Christian imperative, not just a Puritan one. For example Robert Record, an English Protestant, noted that astronomy ‘leads men wonderfully to the knowledge of God and his high mysteries.’34 At about the same time, Henry Howard (1540–1614), a Catholic aristocrat, could write:

Natural philosophy drives us violently to know God, for when we see the causes of things are so orderly, depending on one another, we cannot at length but have recourse to that principle and special cause from which all other things, as if from their fountain head, do flow.35

One of the reasons for the illusion that Protestants have had a disproportionate influence on the rise of science is the bias of traditional English-language histories. They give an impression that after an initial contribution from Galileo, England was the place where almost all important scientific advances occurred. We might assume from this that Protestant tolerance was behind this alleged advantage.

Another big problem for the thesis is the case of France. A history of science with impartial international coverage would recognise the French achievement to be equal to the English. The Reformation in France led first to civil wars, then to religious toleration and then to absolutist Catholic militancy. But as science in France became more highly developed, the country itself became more solidly Catholic.

The undisputed elite of Catholic science were the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus was founded by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) and received its official charter from the Pope in 1540.36 Initially, missionary work and not science was the Society’s driving force. Jesuits also involved themselves in education and the establishment of schools. They set up a college in Rome which provided training for the Jesuit priests, and it grew into an important research establishment. As natural philosophers, the Jesuits have often been criticised for their reliance on Aristotle long after everyone else had abandoned him. This is a reasonable complaint, but it did not handicap their experimental work which was admired even by their opponents. Between 1600 and the order’s suppression in 1773, Jesuits produced 6,000 scientific papers, including 30 per cent of all publications on electricity.37

We can see how little effect religious affiliation had on science in the sixteenth century by examining the cases of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Throughout this period, the universities found themselves under close scrutiny from the English government. Academics were in a position both to challenge the government’s religious policy and provide it with intellectual ballast. This made them dangerous and useful in equal measure, so the authorities were keen to keep the universities loyal. As the country swung back and forth between Catholic and Protestant, professors of the wrong religious persuasion were thrown out of their jobs and new ones appointed. This allows us to see how members of both denominations treated the study of nature and mathematics. At Cambridge, for instance, we know the identities of the official mathematics lecturers from 1500 onwards. These individuals came from every religious tradition. Some were unable to compromise their principles and ended up in prison or exile. Others were happy to serve whoever was in charge at the time. But it is impossible to find any link between their being Catholic or Protestant and their attitude towards astronomy or geometry.38 This conclusion should not surprise us. The theological arguments between Protestantism and Catholicism had no bearing on mathematics. They could hardly have led to one side or the other being more adept at science.

The debate over the effect of the Reformation on scientific advance continues to smoulder. English-language history has traditionally had a marked anti-Catholic bias, and once this is filtered out, evidence that the Protestants were better at science is scant. A recent survey has shown that early modern scientific pioneers were divided exactly evenly between Catholics and Protestants.39 The influence of humanism was much more profound and potentially far more damaging. Humanists chased medieval writers out of the universities with a mixture of invective and satire. If it had not been for the prior efforts of printers, a huge body of knowledge could have been lost, or at least become so inaccessible that it ceased to have any relevance. Thanks to printing, the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages remained at hand for the next generation of scientific thinkers. They plundered it at will and did not always feel that they had to acknowledge the source of the treasures they unearthed. In the last chapters of this book, we will see how the discoveries of the Middle Ages came to be incorporated into modern science.

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