The European world of the sixteenth century was a world of change. Though it still retained many of the institutions such as the Church, the universities, the manufacturing, and commercial guilds, and the feudal system of land-holding that had emerged during the Middle Ages, a new structure was developing. In religion, politics, econ­omics, and society, Europe was breaking with its medieval past.

Undoubtedly the most important single institution was that of the Church. It served as a force to unify the whole of Western Europe under the leadership of the Papacy, preserving and per­petuating the learning of the past in its schools and monasteries and providing a softening influence upon the rigors of much of the social life of the Middle Ages. By 1500, of course, it had lost some of its influence.

The Papacy had been discredited by the bold attacks upon its authority from monarchs such as Philip the Fair of France and Edward I of England. Its old position had been weak­ened still more seriously by a thirty-eight-year period of papal conflict—by 1409 there were no fewer than three popes, all claim­ing absolute authority. As a result of this rivalry—known as the Great Schism—monarchs could pay their respects to any pope or none, and the notion that the pope had supremacy over all govern­ments had become increasingly difficult to defend.

Reformers such as John Wycliffe in England and John Hus in Bohemia carried their criticism of the Papacy into the area of church practices and church organization generally and had some influence, even though their followers were persecuted and their demands denied.

The great medieval universities felt the forces of change also. While theology continued to be a very popular study, more and more of the earnest young men who flocked to the great centers of learning which had developed at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and else­where, were turning to law, medicine, and philosophy. From among them came many critics of the old order.

The New Monarchies

One of the most obvious signs of change had been the appearance by 1500 of strong monarchies in France, Spain, and England. In France, it was Louis XI (1461-1483) who laid the foundations for a centralized and powerful monarchy. He and his immediate suc­cessors, Charles VIII (1.183-1.198) and Louis XII (1498 -1515) built up the royal army, subdued ambitious nobles, extended their national boundaries, and created the administrative machinery for governing a large state from the royal court in Paris.

The French kings ever since Philip the Fair were not obliged to secure the con­sent of their subjects in the matter of taxation, so that Louis XI, for example, found it necessary to summon representatives of his people in the Estates-General only once during his reign. The process by which the French kings won absolute control over their states was completed by Francis I (1515-1517).

By 1500 Spain as a single state was already in existence. Legally there were still two countries, Aragon and Castile, but for practical purposes, they had been joined by the marriage of their respective rulers in 1469. Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile con­tinued to rule as separate monarchs, with separate political organiza­tions, but following Isabella’s death in 1504 and that of Ferdinand in 1516, both crowns and both countries became the possessions of their grandson, Charles, who thus became Charles I of Spain.

Even before the formal unification the two states had followed a common policy and had established unity over the whole peninsula of Spain- With the support of both the Church and nobility the new monarch was able to expand his authority into the rest of Europe and, the New World as well. In 1519, the young Spanish king inherited the lands of Austria, the states of the Netherlands, and the title of Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. From that date until his abdication in 1555 there was always a danger that his power would spread over the whole of the European continent.

In England after a half-century of civil war and doubtful suc­cessions to the throne, Henry VII (1485-1509) became king. In him the claims of the rival factions were eventually united; when he died in 1509 Henry had established a strong monarchy. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the strength of the Tudor monarchy was the fact that it brought what the overwhelming majority of the English people wanted: peace and the opportunity to devote their time and energy to the task of developing the nation’s new trade and new industries. As in France and Spain national sentiment enor­mously strengthened the position of the national monarch.

It is significant to note that the monarchs of the new states—Francis, Charles, and Henry Tudor—were all, like the overwhelming majority of their subjects, aware that new forces were altering their world. The attention of Europeans was increasingly being turned to the new learning of the Renaissance, to the new religions and new churches, and to the new worlds beyond the seas that Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama had just succeeded in opening up.

Humanism and Protestantism

During the sixteenth century, both the revived interest in the classi­cal learning of the Greeks and the Romans and the spectacular new activity in the fine arts spread from the Italian cities north into other European areas. Early in the century, Francois Rabelais penned his brutally frank comments about the world around him. During the middle years the polished, cynical Michel de Montaigne searched for scientific truth and scorned the authority of the pastor of the Bible.

By the end of the century, William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon were exhibiting the two qualities which distin­guished Renaissance thought and literature: an intense interest in the present life, and an equally intense interest in the new science. Sparked by the dramatic discoveries of the astronomer Copernicus, of the mathematicians Tartaglia, Cardan, and Napier, and of the medical experimenters Paracelsus and Vesalius., the scientists of the sixteenth century prepared the way for the great achievements of the following hundred years.

The Christian Humanists in the northern states of Europe during the sixteenth century were concerned less with the ancient learning or the new science, and more with the relationships between man. his God, and his Church. The most influential among them was the great Erasmus of Rotterdam, a philosopher-churchman who domi­nated the intellectual life of northern Europe during the first part of the century. His colleague and friend, Sir Thomas More, was almost equally well known in England at least.

Such men as Erasmus and More were effective in their criticism of the Church of their day and of the society which is controlled. They were far from being rebels, however. They called for reforms and the elimination of all practices and beliefs which were out of harmony with the Church as Christ and his disciples had founded it. but they opposed those who wanted to destroy the Church. or to replace it with a new religious organization. This was also the stand taken by Martin Luther at the beginning of his career as a reformer. His attacks upon the priesthood and the Papacy soon developed, however, into an open conflict with the Church itself.

The Lutheran attack was supported for various reasons by many of the rulers of the states of northern Germany, by a succession of Danish kings, and by King Gustavus I of Sweden. In Eastern Europe, in Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia as well as in parts of Poland the new doctrines were enthusiastically received.

In Switzer­land the even more radical teaching of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin was adopted, and by the middle of the sixteenth century, Geneva had become a city whose government by churchmen was accepted as a model by “Puritans” everywhere. By 1600 the Calvin­ist denial of the authority of the old priesthood, the old h. or the old doctrine, was supported strongly by radical groups in Scotland, England. France, Holland, as well as many of the West German states.

By the middle of the century, it had become obvious that the medieval single Church was gone forever. In 1545 the Church itself began a long period of reform at the hands of its Council of Trent, and by 103 it had been reorganized, and its doctrines had been purged of many of the interpretations which the Protestants had condemned.

It is worth noticing that the reform decrees of the Council of Trent were almost the last such decrees to be issued by a Church Council- And the changes were not accepted without question even by Catholic rulers. The Emperor did not recognize the Council at all, and the King of France recognized only those decisions which he wished to see in operation. He simply neglected to publish the rest. Even in Spain, the most Catholic of all states, the decrees were published along with a list of conditions and reservations.

Appar­ently for most of the rulers of Europe national interests had already become more important than those of the Catholic Church, and national politics more important than religion. The wars which they fought amongst themselves from 1530 to 1648 are often called the Wars of Religion but in fact, they were practically always wars between national states, or between rival factions seeking control over them-

Perhaps the most important single result of the great religious upheaval in the sixteenth century was the establishment of what historians have called “the nation-state system”. But there were other changes as well. One was a rapidly developing intolerance and fanaticism which now became a characteristic of the age. All over Europe after 1550 Christian groups persecuted another Christian group, and each justified its policy as an effort to protect the true doctrines from wicked enemies.

No one was allowed to preach that it was possible for men of different religious faiths to live peacefully side by side. Small wonder that the great Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, accustomed as he was too religious toleration in his own empire, looked at the Christians fighting one another and called them “vicious children”.

In the long run, however, the intensity of religious feeling in Europe during the sixteenth century burned itself out. In France by the end of the century, the need for law and order and the rule of a Protestant king who had turned Catholic to get the throne, com­bined to bring about a measure of religious toleration. In Poland a truce was worked out between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist at about the same time.

During the seventeenth-century religious policy in Holland became one of rather wide toleration. And in England, where in theory the law still insisted upon religious uniformity, more and more the practice after 1680 was to accept the fact that religious differences ought not to be allowed to disturb the national peace.

It has often been claimed that the new religions brought about a new emphasis upon the individual. Certainly one of the messages of Protestantism was that the individual man must seek his own communication with God, and some of the sects insisted that each individual must be free to form his own religious views. From this, it is sometimes argued that the foundations of modern democracy were laid during the religious turmoil of the sixteenth and seven­teenth centuries. While there is something in this argument—for democracy rests in part upon an acceptance of the rights of the individual—it must not be carried too far.

The Calvinists, for example, sought a democratic organization for their church, and some sects insisted even on electing their pastors. Nevertheless, the rights which they demanded were to be shared only by the godly. The wicked had no rights at all—and in the eyes of the Calvinists, there were very many wicked! The truth is that most of the new churches were still very far from being democratic. Many of them quickly came directly under the control of the monarch himself, and some of them became in fact agencies of the royal power. This was true in the Lutheran German states, in Den­mark, in Sweden, and certainly in the England of Henry VIII and of Queen Elizabeth I.

Last, of all, it has often been claimed in recent years that the rise of Protestantism hastened the birth of the new capitalism. Whether this or the reverse is true, or whether both were simply occurring side by side, is a subject that still causes argument among the his­torians. There is no doubt, however, that among the new develop­ments of the sixteenth century, one of the most important was the rise of a capitalist economy in Europe. The key figure in this econ­omy was the new banker.

His function was not to produce goods, nor to buy and sell them, but simply to finance those who performed those duties. The Fuggers of Augsburg were typical of the new financiers of northern Europe; by 1500 this family was among the first powers in all of Europe. The firm acted as bankers for many of the new rulers; for example, it loaned Emperor Charles V the money which we needed to make sure of his election to the Imperial throne in 1510.

An even more spectacular example was that of the de Medici’s in Italy. By 1500 this family was not only the bankers for the Italian princes and despots, but was financing industry and commerce throughout Europe and acting as patrons of the arts as well. Two popes and many bishops and other dignitaries came from the family, and two of the Medici women reigned as queens of France.

Economic Changes

The growth of the great banking houses was only one of many significant changes in the European economy during the sixteenth cen­tury. Another was a rapid development of industry, using a system quite different from that of the old handicraft guilds. Particularly in the field of textile manufacturing, this new “putting-out” system rapidly spread in France, Flanders, and England. An individual with capital could buy materials such as raw wool, and “put out” those materials to people living in their own cottages in the country villages.

Working at home the villagers then spun woolen yarn for the owner and were paid for their labor on a piece-work basis. Other villagers wove the yarn which was “put out” to them, and produced in turn the finished cloth. The one thing which the controller of the system needed was enough capital to enable him to buy the materials and to wait until the goods were sold before he made his profit. The key figure in the new economy was, as a result, neither a manufacturer nor a trader, but a financier.

Another characteristic of the new economic life of Europe was the tremendous expansion of commerce. Hundreds of new products were coming into use, brought from scores of newly discovered regions. Fortunes were to be made in supplying the existing needs of Europe. Even greater fortunes were to be made by the discoverers of new lands and new products. And of course, much larger supplies of gold were needed to finance all the new ventures. Europeans had already begun to explore the lands beyond their own borders.

Ever since the Crusades, Venetian traders had been making spectacular profits in their commerce with Asia Minor, bringing into Europe the silks and spices which had been brought overland from the fabulous lands of Cathay and the Indies. The overland trade routes were dangerous and costly; very early it was clear that a direct route to the riches of the East would offer a handsome reward to its discoverer.

The first attempts were made by the Portuguese. With the en­couragement of Prince Henry the Navigator, explorers in the service of that country penetrated farther and farther south along the coast of Africa during the fifteenth century. Traders who fol­lowed them made spectacular profits and financed still more voyages. Finally, in 1486 Bartolomeo Dias sailed his ship around the tip of Africa; twelve years later Vasco da Gama led his fleet around the Cape and up the east coast of Africa to India.

In 1402, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese captain sailing in the service of the Spanish government, reached the outermost islands of the West Indies. In 1510 the Spanish under Cortez began the conquest of Mexico and a few years later the troops of Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru. From the New World came riches which revolu­tionized the whole economy of Europe and made Spain for almost a century the strongest power in the world.

Naturally, there were disputes between Spain and Portugal over the limits of the new lands claimed by each. In 1519, in an attempt to find an exact definition of the limits, Ferdinand Magellan led his fleet of five ships down the coast of South America, through the treacherous strait at its tip, and across to the Philippines. Magellan himself was killed there, but in 1522 one ship, bearing the eighteen survivors of the great adventure limped around the Cape of Good Hope and home to Spain.

French and English explorers were a little later in the game. As early as 1497 Henry VII of England had given very grudging assist­ance to the Genoese sailors, John and Sebastian Cabot. Although the Cabots reached Newfoundland, their backers were far from pleased with their results. Gold and silver they had failed to find; the potential wealth to be won in the fisheries was only gradually exposed. Not until well into the seventeenth century were the English and French to challenge the Portuguese and Spaniards as the exploiters of the New World.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

1 Comment

  1. A reason why it is important to discover and confront these issues is because Christians, Jews and Muslims carry their beliefs with them outside their places of worship.

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