The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

The Grand Old Church

By 1300, the Latin church was more integrated and centralised than any institution that came before it in Western Europe.  By integrating the ‘barbarian’ North as well as the sunny lands of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, it introduced new lands to old civilisations. The eastern frontier of Latin Christianity was Lithuania; the Teutonic Knights had waged war with the pagan kingdom in 1386, finding no other outlet for their aggression in the gap between crusades. When Lithuania came under Poland’s relatively benign authority, the Knights fought again, only to be trounced. The crusading spirit, however, died with Henry VIII and Charles V’s aborted war-as-peace program. Despite the complex seduction of holy, just war- Europe scheduled Crusades well into the 16th century- they were of little avail, as Ignatius Loyala discovered before he turned his energies upon fresher pastures.

The spread and hold of the Church consolidated, popes began to deploy the institution politically.  It was a simple, direct system: the pope was divinely ordained temporal and spiritual emperor, kings were subject to his authority, lay people and lower clergy were subservient to king. In effect, the church divided up ‘secular’ jurisdiction between assorted powers (itself included) and dynasties; granting them, in turn, sacred authority over their subjects. Naturally, this being a bureaucracy, there were elaborate aristocratic ranks: a duke here, a baron there, a lord next door, a few kings tossed in for effect. To whip this royal menagerie into shape, there existed the caste of Electors, men whose confluence produced Emperors.

The balance of the Imperial Election was the politics of the time, and these folk wielded awesome power. It was the intervention of the Elector Palatine that saved Martin Luther’s skin from the combined fury of a mad pope and a prudent emperor. In the midst of all the scheming,  small Free Cities everywhere rested precariously: the lord’s rule began at the city’s gate. Perched atop this vast edifice was the Holy Roman Emperor.  In the onset of our era this was the doleful Charles V, of whom you could only ask: which country did he not rule?

Europe in 1560

This map is a bit after Charles V’s reign, but the yellow bit combined with the pink one maps out Habsburg influence in this time

The Holy Roman Emperor was the ostensible war-chief of a swathe of North-Central Christendom, as well as direct ruler of the dynastic Habsburg territories (Spain, Bohemia, Austria). It is a peculiarity of medieval and early modern European politics that empires could be run from geographically diverse locations with few contiguous borders. Witness the weird conglomeration of rag-tag territories that made up the Habsburg empire(s) after Charles V retired and split up his incredible domain. However, all kings, not only the Holy Roman one, had to be crowned in liturgical ceremony, i.e., they had to be approved by the Church and the pope.  In the 14th century, rampant abuse of this aspect of the pope’s jurisdiction led to sniping and power-brokering, and by 1378 the Latin West had three distinct popes laying claim to Rome, each supported by a different secular authority. This was the  “Avignon Affair” or “Great Schism” that  haunted the 15th and 16th century church.

Church organisation by the time of the Reformation was divided into a threefold system: The Curia, various Holy Orders, and Bishoprics (or dioceses). Reformed churches overturned this established triumvirate. They dissolved the holy orders, sacked abbeys and monasteries, trampled on the holiness of saints and popes, some even sent their Bishops packing and sacked cathedrals. They rejected papal authority in favour of that of the ‘landesvater’ (connected to the land; local) leaders and city councils, and were most successful in areas where such leaders felt themselves ignored or disrespected by the church.  This was the case, famously, with Henry VIII- but was equally true, for historically sounder reasons, in the German and Swiss lands, in the Low Countries, in all territories forced to pay allegiance to distant masters. The mainstream Reformation, Lutheran and Presbyterian alike (more on the difference later) is often called the “magisterial” reformation- it favoured nearby magistrates, at the expense of both the old Church and the peasants.  Such rulers, in turn, supported local reformers for the promise of church funds and enhanced influence in decisions made by local ecclesiastical courts.

Martin Luther, for instance, was as alarmed as any authority by the anarchy he unleashed: the ‘heretic Anabaptists’ of Munster,  the iconoclast Lutheran sects of “Schwarmerei”. Across the Empire, huge tracts of countryside, inflamed by the scent of up-chucked orthodoxy, rebelled against church and ruler alike during the Peasants’ Wars of the 1520s; Luther, for his part, heartily supported brutal reprisals by the authorities.  In a very real sense, his Reformation pivoted on rulers more than on the ruled populace. This dependence was responsible for the formula of “cuius regio, eius religio” settled upon by the  Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which made the religion of the land that which was decided upon by its ruler.  This peace, designed as a reluctant concession between Catholic and Lutheran elites in the Holy Roman Empire, drew religious front-lines that never came undone, despite dozens of ‘third way’ attempts  across the span of this tortured century.  The brokered truce ignored the Calvin-style Reformed altogether, which makes it odd and perhaps apt that it became the dominant motif within later reformations.

This new principle was a neat switcheroo of the old formula: where the church had once to approve a king, a king now had to approve a church; a state of affairs that had a lasting impact on political equations in Europe. It helped convert vague confederations of lands that characterised medieval Europe into the state-nations of early modern Europe, which in turn were the genesis of the post-French Revolution nation-states of the 19th century. The wars fuelled by the Reformation (it was another century of almost incessant warfare between Augsburg and Westphalia) strengthened administrations and bureaucracies across Europe, by dint of forcing them to develop sophisticated armies and taxation systems. It was the first arms-race, and a brutally effective one.  Only the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the most cosmopolitan of European empires, was able to escape these divisive lines being drawn across the map of Europe, mostly by being serenely liberal about the whole affair: their lands, after all, accommodated far greater diversity than Latin Europe was used to: Jews, Muslims, radical Protestant sects, and the Orthodox Eastern churches all thrived in Jageillon lands. The story of its downfall will take us well into the 18th century, and much as I love you all, you couldn’t drag me there for love or money in this essay.

11 Responses to “The Cult of the Big Book.”

  1. baby kleidung October 20, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with
    your blog.

  2. chaosbogey October 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    ‘lo, I’m glad someone actually made it through my monster! I hope it helped you in your search. I recommend the book most highly if you have the time for it.

  3. Karen November 1, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    This post is included at History Carnival #92.

  4. lida dai dai November 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Ernest Hemingway~ Theres nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility is being superior to your former self.

  5. chaosbogey December 5, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    thanks, all of you. I am so gratified that people are making their way through this one. It’s a plod, but I like to think it’s worth it.

  6. Phyliss Lary December 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    But wanna admit that this is extremely helpful, Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  7. black hat world December 10, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Wow, this was very fun to read. Have you ever considered submitting articles to magazines?

    • chaosbogey December 17, 2010 at 9:54 am #

      blackhatworld- totally, all the time, and if only. For now I self-publish for lack of better options.

  8. Sage Holsapple January 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    This story is totally worth digging!

  9. Danny Basley April 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    This design is spectacular! You most certainly know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Great job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!


  1. Carnivalesque 68 | Mercurius Politicus - November 22, 2010

    […] ChaosBogey reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. […]

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