December 30, 2008

The Dutch Reformation 1520-50

Dutch Protestantism had massive consequences for European history: it fuelled the eventual Dutch revolt, had an important effect in the English seventeenth century particularly the civil war and the Revolution of 1688, and provided a check on French and Spanish ambitions in Germany and the wider world. Understanding its peculiar nature therefore is a vital part of understanding the events that formed the modern world- the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War and the culture of Early Modern Europe. Dutch Protestantism provided an intellectual environment for the philosophy of Spinoza, the jurisprudence of Grotius and the talents of painters like Van Eyck all took their form within a world shaped by Dutch Protestantism.

So what shaped Dutch Protestantism? According to Professor Israel there are two basic phenomena that we need to take account of if we are to understand what was unique about Dutch Protestantism. The first was that the Dutch Church was weak and that Dutch humanism was strong. The Dutch church was large but its presence within society was declining and it was unpopular. Furthermore it did not have appropriate leadership- the Netherlands was ecclesiastically divided between different bishoprics, some in France and in Germany. Into this clerical vacuum came the new techniques of humanism. The subject of humanism and what it meant in the early modern period is incredibly complex but lets assume for the sake of this discussion, that what it meant was a new attitude to texts. A humanist such as Erasmus taught that texts were open to those who might use them with the appropriate scholarly apparatus- consequently what he did for example was produce a Dutch translation of the Bible. Theologically they were committed to reform within the Church- often reform that might look like the reforms that Protestants too favoured, rationalisation we might call it- reforms which swept away clerical privileges and abuses and attempted to focus the Church around its mission- the gospel of Christ.

Such bald summaries will have to suffice to explain the nature of the landscape in the Netherlands- but I hope that gives you the impression that the Netherlands was ripe for the Lutheran movement after 1520 to spread. The last factor which governed how that movement spread was the persecution adopted as policy by the Hapsburg rulers of the Netherlands. Charles V made repeated efforts to bring in to the region the inquisition- fortifying it even after he had brought it in. The effect of this was to force the reformation under ground. Significantly it created a large group of people who temporised- who remained within the Catholic Church but held Protestant opinions. The martyrs who died for the faith were more often Anabaptists than Lutherans- another fact which influenced the progress of the reformation.

What this did was create in the Netherlands, according to Professor Israel, a very different reformation to the reformations that happened elsewhere in Europe. Whereas in Britain for example the reformation received its initial impetus from the crown and a reformed Church, in the Netherlands there was no institutional support for the reformation. Consequently Israel argues that the Dutch Reformation developed in an unstructured way- its heroes were people who in most of Europe were derided. It should also be noted that it developed into a movement of internal reformation- influential theorists like David Joris argued for a reformation proceeding through the spirit. Anabaptism remained stronger in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe- in some provinces up to 25% of congregations did not believe in child baptism. It should also be noted that whereas in the UK- London formed the centre of the reformation, in Holland it was marginal regions like East Frisia where Hapsburg persecution did not reach or amongst exiles in Germany that influential developments like the arrival of Calvinism took place.

The Dutch Reformation was much more fluid and anarchic precisely because it was an underground reformation- it was much less institutional and much more internal for the same reason. It came up from below- partly because of the triumph of humanism and weakness of the Church and partly because of the persecuting zeal of the Hapsburg Emperor. The story of Dutch Protestantism was different to that of English Protestantism because in England the new religion was chained to Parliament and the King, in the Netherlands the new religion was the leading antagonist of the Hapsburgs and only became fettered to the state after seizing a position amongst the people. In that sense, according to Professor Israel, Holland saw a different rhythm either from England or Scotland or Germany.


James Higham said...

Dutch protestantism - a nice one to go with pre-New year, Tiberius. Happy New year to you.

Anonymous said...

They sound a bit dull to me!

jmb said...

Happy New Year to you Gracchi.

James Higham said...

You going to do one on Belgium or the Flemish weavers?

Samuel Bass said...

Poor choice of artists to mention. Van Eyck lived and died before any Reformation (save the Czech, and unless one count Wycliffe), much less the Dutch. The relationship between the "weakness" of the Reformed Church and the "strength" of Dutch humanism is a relative one, and Israel's Dutch Republic volume does not state the matter even in such a manner as to be reducible to your formulation. I just happen to be re-reading it now. Unlike the other poster, I don't find the subject "kinda dull" at all. But I'm old and probably kinda dull m'self.

James Hamilton said...

That would have been fair comment in 2008, Mr Bass, but it's 2009 now.

Gracchi said...

Ok I got the choice of artist wrong- I didn't have to mention Van Eyck who was merely an illustration Mr Bass to a point.

Anyway I'm not entirely sure what your point is- that Israel's book can say things which a post which stretches over four paragraphs can't, well yes fortunately it can. Mr Bass I suggest if you can do more in four paragraphs, you do it yourself on a post.

I do not find this subject dull at all- and nor do I think the insolence of age should enable you to condescend to those younger than yourself!