Elton, Geoffrey R. Reformation Europe, 1517-1559. New York: World Publishing Company, 1964.

"The progress and spread of reformed Churches might originate with intellectual and spiritual doubts and aspirations; it might involve and be assisted by stresses in society and economic difficulties; it might be fertilized by direct missionary activity from the German fountain-head; but for its ultimate fate it depended in the last resort on one thing only - the secular politics of principalities and powers." (140)

This, I think, is Elton's thesis.

When Luther, a professor at Saxon University, nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, it was an invitation to a dispute, a common enough practice. Luther's sola fide conviction was born of personal struggle but not - he thought - new to Christianity; rather, what was new and objectionable were the indulgences being sold by the Archbishop of Mainz through Johann Tetzel. Public support for Luther's complaints was surprising and immediate. After public debate, Luther realized that his position was irreconcilable with the church as it stood and he called for reform in 1520 with three important treatises: The Liberty of the Christian Man; The Babylonish Captivity; and An Address to Christian Nobility of the German Nation. He was promptly excommunicated by Leo X. The church in Germany was struggling to be relevant to current needs. Germans had a sense of self and economic power, but not a centralized government. As the population rose, so did inflation. Humanists were gaining power in civil authority. Certain "factors" so to speak, were lined up for the future catastrophic change.

Charles V was born in 1500; he was 19 when he became Holy Roman Emperor of a huge and far-flung realm. Charles was raised as a Burgundy knight and was all his life opposed by the Valois king of France, Francis I. Although the Valois-Hapsburg conflict was hardly the only conflict of his reign, it was the most important. With responsibilities running from America to the Ottoman Empire, the disorder in Germany must have been worrying, but not a priority. French disputes with the Hapsburgs spilled over into Italy and elsewhere, setting him at odds with the pope, and giving the first years of the future Reformation some "breathing space." In 1521 he heard the unrepentant confession of the already- excommunicated Martin Luther "Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me; Amen." He added exile to Luther's penalties; fortunately for Luther, friends who had already protected him "kidnapped" him and set him to loose ends at Wartburg castle - whereupon he took to translating the New Testament in German.

Luther's enforced absence meant that other leaders had to take up the cause. Some (Melanchthon) were helpful; others (Carlstadt) were too radical. Gradually, Lutheran churches were established, with an order of service and a doctrine, but more importantly, they allied themselves with Elector John, a secular prince. Luther had no interest in political reform and mercilessly berated those peasants who revolted in 1524-26. At the same time, Luther broke with the humanists who had previously supported him. He was too narrowly focused on Christian life and doctrine to be in harmony broad-based semi-secular literary scholarship. One by one cities declared their allegiance to Lutheranism. Elton glosses Zwingli, who carried reform to Zurich. A point of difference emerged: what, exactly, was the Eucharist? Symbol, miracle, presence of Christ? It was impossible to agree and impossible to be reconciled. So branches of Reform grew up. Meanwhile, what had Charles been doing? He had been fighting in Italy and winning: Elton says that the Valois were decisively defeated in 1525 at Pavia. In 1526 the Turks took Mohacs in Hungary, and the Imperial troops, in a rather blatant move to keep the Pope from entering political alliances against Charles, sacked Rome in 1527. In 1529 he was able to turn the Ottomans away from Vienna, and so return to the problems of Germany.

Elton tells us that Luther took his stand with the German princes and Calvin took his stand on the basis of moral censorship. Radicalism throve in the various antinomialist movements (the belief that no laws apply to the pre-ordained and Spirit-led soul). Elton glosses the conflicts and minor leaders. Most memorable were the Anabaptists at Munster, a separatist, millenialist, polygamist and short-lived kingdom. How did reform fare elsewhere? In Italy, the humanist movement remained reformist but not Lutheran; rather it was "Erasmian" in character; in Spain orthodox Catholicism was enforced by the Spanish Inquisition. Erasmus found a hearing among the learned; Luther among the poor. And for that reason, rulers looked upon Lutheranism with suspicion. In France, poverty and distress allied the working classes with reform, but the ruling powers ultimately found that "Paris is worth a mass." Francis I and Charles V remained hostile to reform. Northern princes were more independent. Both Sweden and Denmark accepted reform but in the East, amongst the loosely organized estates of the landed nobility, re-enserfment was carrying forward. Resistance to reform was more modest.

Charles V had had a relatively successful first 10 years as an emperor, but he failed to obtain unity at Augsburg; although his brother was confirmed as his successor, the resolve and resistance of the Lutheran princes stiffened into the Schmalkadic League. Momentarily the Germans and the Emperor allied against the Turkish threat, but as it turned out, battle wasn't necessary, and after Charles returned to Spain, the Schmalkadic League dealt with the French and with Henry VIII, both enemies of Charles. Again, to stop the Turks' advance, he concluded a treaty with France and tried to force unity, and again, he was unsuccessful.

Quite a few Catholics had written replies to Luther, and some orders in Italy - such as the Capuchins - revived traditions of austerity. Paul III (after Leo X, Adrian VI, and Clement VII) appreciated the need for reform and, in 1537 asked a commission to report on necessary steps. As it often happens, the steps were recommended but never completed. As a Counter-Reformation miracle, Paul III was offered the enthusiastic Society of Jesus, which he approved in 1540, just as he called for the Council of Trent. The Council

The Reform drew a Catholic Counter-Reformation, and likewise, it sparked a Reformation of the Reform itself in John Calvin. Calvin - 26 years younger that Luther -- matriculated from Paris University in 1523 and at his father's request continued to study law with humanists, include Guillame Bude, in France. His conversion came in 1533-34, and from that moment on, never doubted that God had called him to be a reformer of the Church. Elton comments on his character in dialectical terms: "If he lacked Luther's passion, humanity and reckless courage, he also lacked his self-doubts and his extravagances; if he was inferior to Zwingli in speculative intelligence, he also avoided the superficially and self-centered playing at politics which marred the reform at Zurich. He surpassed both his predecessors and lesser, if still notable, men like Bucher and Melanchthon in lucidity and learned precision." (213) In 1536 he first published his life-work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin's faith is active, not mystical, and his thinking theocentric rather than Christocentric (although salvific). In 1536, on a trip from France to Strassburg, he stopped at Geneva, for a night as he supposed. Pressed to stay, he ended up staying for 28 years. Geneva was a town with a reputation for license, and Calvin struggled with the secular leaders and church fathers in the city over moral reform he thought necessary. Exiled in 1538, he went to Strassburg as he had intended, and left only 1541 when recalled by Geneva to continue his work there. Calvin was never much for compromise, and the order of life he proposed was total. Strife continued in Geneva between men who challenged Calvin's religious tenets and those who objected to his control of civil affairs. The impetus for reform, says Elton, had not been exhausted by 1550 - all across Europe more regions (rich and poor alike) were reached by Calvinism, and because it was not a German-linked Reform, were perhaps more open to it. Calvinism won its way in places where it became clear that the people, but not the ruling prince, wished to break form from Catholicism (but see his thesis, above?). In a kind of irony, Calvinism was linked to anti-authoritarianism outside of Geneva.

After the final failure of the Diet at Regensburg to win unity among the churchmen, Charles V continued, in 1541, to desire the end of the Schmalkadic league, and bent his policies to that purpose. He was engaged again with Francis I and with the Turks, but not able to win any victories until 1543 in Germany itself, at Cleves. After some maneuvering, the French were neutralized, the Pope was affixed through the promise of some lands to the Farnese family. Elton tells us that Charles needed this war against the Schmalkadeners to be seen as particular and punitive, not general and religious in nature. It began in 1546, the year that Luther died, and ended in 1547 at Muhlberg. And yet, while he shattered the League, he did not have the power to "undo" the Protestant allegiances, nor the Reformation that they represented. No one wanted an-all powerful emperor, and the Pope, for one, began to back away from the alliance he had made, and allowed the Council of Trent (where Charles had hoped to hammer things out) to move to Bologna. Elector Maurice switched sides from Charles to France and the Protestant Princes and in 1551 he brought the army at Magdeburg (supposed to be fighting for Charles) to strike against him. Charles's army was in the Netherlands, in Parma, and that from Magdeburg following Maurice. He was helpless. Charles's brother Ferdinand secured a treaty to avoid a total war, but in so doing, divided power between Maurice, Elector of Saxony and the Charles - so giving away Charles's power to finally crush the Protestant princes. Charles, sick with long war and his immense responsibilities, abdicated in 1556. A Diet at Augsburg, unattended by emperor or pope, devised cuius regio, euius religio as a way to establish the peace - and it was a peace which held for the next 63 years.

Elton concludes with a survey of the age - what characterized the Reformation age?

Elton believes that the earlier Erasmian Christian humanism, as movement, was powerless to effect political change. "The defenders of the established order could afford to ignore sensible, moderate men." In a definitive break, God was placed squarely back at the center of Christianity: intermediaries of all sorts were removed. The primacy of the medieval church over thought was removed. Freedom of conscience or thought was not necessarily fostered in Lutheran or Calvinist doctrine, but the actual state of affairs forced a necessary toleration. Elton argues that the secularized state also grew from the Reformation. And state consolidation proceeds, however fitfully. Elton tells us that the middle class did not truly exist in this era, but towns were growing apace. At the same time, the elites were taking advantage of colonization east and west.

Turning to artists, Elton traces the parallels between Michelangelo's career and the turns of the age. His David celebrates the expulsion of the Medici; the last Judgment is painted during the Council of Trent. The Reformation begins the golden years of poetry and drama in many countries; language is enriched as translation follows translation; humanist ideals and coarse funny secular images are blended in the popular works of Rabelais. The canon of Christian theology is enriched by the works Luther and Calvin and Loyola. Intellectual advances are made in medicine and science and astronomy - 1543 sees the publication of Andreas Vesalius's Epitome and Nicholas Copernicus's On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres.

As a final point, Elton references the Weberian "calling" thesis. Weber argued that the same state of mind which impelled the Protestant revolution also impelled the capitalist impulse. Elton disagrees: the idea of a calling had existed long before Luther, and the idea of capitalism, as Weber defines it ("the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profil, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise") is both tautological and unavailable to 16th century merchants. Reformers, moreover, were opposed to a worldly focus on mere money-making that led to greed. Only In the 19th century, amongst businessmen who had abandoned Calvinism, were such dedications possible. And, he adds, many notably business-focused areas (Holland, England, Belgium) were so focused before, and not after, Calvinism or Lutheranism arrived.

N.B. I think Elton is wrong, but … it's late!