by Hilaire Belloc. Annotation of text copyright (c)2006 David Trumbull and Patrick McNamara. All Rights Reserved.

Here Begins Chapter VIII of Europe and the Faith being the continuation from Chapter VII

WHAT WAS THE REFORMATION?
This is perhaps the greatest of all historical questions, after the original question: "What was the Church in the Empire of Rome?" A true answer to this original question gives the nature of that capital revolution by which Europe came to unity and to maturity and attained to a full consciousness of itself. An answer to the other question: "What was the Reformation?" begins to explain our modern ill-ease.
A true answer to the question: "What was the Reformation?" is of such vast importance, because it is only when we grasp what the Reformation was that we understand its consequences. Then only do we know how the united body of European civilization has been cut asunder and by what a wound. The abomination of industrialism; the loss of land and capital by the people in great districts of Europe; the failure of modern discovery to serve the end of man; the series of larger and still larger wars following in a rapidly rising scale of severity and destruction–till the dead are now counted in tens of millions; the increasing chaos and misfortune of society–all these attach one to the other, each falls into its place, and a hundred smaller phenomena as well, when we appreciate, as today we can, the nature and the magnitude of that fundamental catastrophe.
It is possible that the perilous business is now drawing to its end, and that (though those now living will not live to see it) Christendom may enter into a convalescence: may at last forget the fever and be restored. With that I am not here concerned. It is my business only to explain that storm which struck Europe four hundred years ago and within a century brought Christendom to shipwreck.
The true causes are hidden–for they were spiritual.
In proportion as an historical matter is of import to human kind, in that proportion does it spring not from apparent–let alone material–causes, but from some hidden revolution in the human spirit. To pretend an examination of the secret springs whence the human mind is fed is futile. The greater the affair, the more directly does it proceed from unseen sources which the theologian may catalogue, the poet see in vision, the philosopher explain, but with which positive external history cannot deal, and which the mere historian cannot handle. It is the function of history to present the outward thing, as a witness might have seen it, and to show the reader as much as a spectator could have seen–illuminated indeed by a knowledge of the past–and a judgment drawn from known succeeding events. The historian answers the question, " What was?" this or that. To the question, " Why was it?" if it be in the spiritual order (as are all major things), the reader must attempt his own reply based upon other aptitudes than those of historic science.
It is the neglect of this canon which makes barren so much work upon the past. Read Gibbon's attempt to account for "why" the Catholic Church arose in the Roman Empire, and mark his empty failure. /24/
Mark also how all examination of the causes of the French Revolution are colored by something small and degraded, quite out of proportion to that stupendous crusade which transformed the modern world. The truth is, that the historian can only detail those causes, largely material, all evident and positive, which lie within his province, and such causes are quite insufficient to explain the full result. Were I here writing "Why" the Reformation came, my reply would not be historic, but mystic. I should say that it came "from outside mankind." But that would be to affirm without the hope of proof, and only in the confidence that all attempts at positive proof were contemptible. Luckily I am not concerned in so profound an issue, but only in the presentation of the thing as it was. Upon this I now set out.
With the close of the Middle Ages two phenomena appeared side by side in the society of Europe. The first was an ageing and a growing fatigue of the simple mediŠval scheme; the second was a very rapid accretion of technical power.
As to the first I have suggested (it is no more than a suggestion), that the mediŠval scheme of society, though much the best fitted to our race and much the best expression which it has yet found, though especially productive of happiness (which here and hereafter is the end of man), was not properly provided with instruments of survival.
Its science was too imperfect, its institutions too local, though its philosophy was the widest ever framed and the most satisfying to the human intelligence.
Whatever be the reason, that society did rapidly grow old. Its every institution grew formal or debased. The Guilds from true co÷perative partnerships for the proper distribution of the means of production, and for the prevention of a proletariat with its vile cancer of capitalism, tended to become privileged bodies. Even the heart of Christian Europe, the village, showed faint signs that it might become an oligarchy of privileged farmers with some land and less men at their orders. The Monastic orders were tainted in patches up and down Europe, with worldliness, with an abandonment of their strict rule, and occasionally with vice. Civil government grew befogged with tradition and with complex rules. All manner of theatrical and false trappings began to deform society, notably the exaggeration of heraldry and a riot of symbolism of which very soon no one could make head or tail.
The temporal and visible organization of the Church did not escape in such a welter. The lethargy, avarice, and routine from which that organization suffered, has been both grossly exaggerated and set out of perspective. A wild picture of it has been drawn by its enemies. But in a degree the temporal organization of the Church had decayed at the close of the Middle Ages. It was partly too much a taking of things for granted, a conviction that nothing could really upset the unity of Europe; partly the huge concentration of wealth in clerical hands, which proceeded from the new economic activity all over Europe, coupled with the absolute power of the clergy in certain centres and the universal economic function of Rome; partly a popular loss of faith. All these between them helped to do the business. At any rate the evil was there.
All institutions (says Machiavelli) must return to their origins, or they fail. There appeared throughout Europe in the last century of united Europe, breaking out here and there, sporadic attempts to revivify the common life, especially upon its spiritual side, by a return to the primitive communal enthusiasms in which religion necessarily has its historical origins.
This was in no way remarkable. Neither was it remarkable that each such sporadic and spontaneous outburst should have its own taint or vice or false color.
What was remarkable and what made the period unique in the whole history of Christendom (save for the Arian flood) was the incapacity of the external organization of the Church at the moment to capture the spiritual discontent, and to satisfy the spiritual hunger of which these errors were the manifestation.
In a slower time the external organization of the Church would have absorbed and regulated the new things, good and evil. It would have rendered the heresies ridiculous in turn, it would have canalized the exaltations, it would have humanized the discoveries. But things were moving at a rate more and more rapid, the whole society of Western Christendom raced from experience to experience. It was flooded with the newly found manuscripts of antiquity, with the new discoveries of unknown continents, with new commerce, printing, and, an effect perhaps rather than a cause, the complete rebirth of painting, architecture, sculpture and all the artistic expression of Europe.
In point of fact this doubt and seething and attempted return to early religious enthusiasm were not digested and were not captured. The spiritual hunger of the time was not fed. Its extravagance was not exposed to the solvent of laughter or to the flame of a sufficient indignation: they were therefore neither withered nor eradicated. For the spirit had grown old. The great movement of the spirit in Europe was repressed haphazard and, quite as much haphazard, encouraged, but there seemed no one corporate force present throughout Christendom which would persuade, encourage and command: even the Papacy, the core of our unity, was shaken by long division and intrigue.
Let it be clearly understood that in the particular form of special heresies the business was local, peculiar and contemptible. Wycliffe, for instance, was no more the morning star of the Reformation than Catherine of Braganza's Tangier Dowry, let us say, was the morning star of the modern English Empire. Wycliffe was but one of a great number of men who were theorizing up and down Europe upon the nature of society and morals, each with his special metaphysic of the Sacrament; each with his "system." Such men have always abounded; they abound today. Some of Wycliffe's extravagances resemble what many Protestants happen, later, to have held; others (such as his theory that you could not own land unless you were in a state of grace) were of the opposite extreme to Protestantism. And so it is with the whole lot: and there were hundreds of them. There was no common theory, no common feeling in the various reactions against a corrupted ecclesiastical authority which marked the end of the Middle Ages. There was nothing the least like what we call Protestantism today. Indeed that spirit and mental color does not appear until a couple of generations after the opening of the Reformation itself.
What there was , was a widespread discontent and exasperated friction against the existing, rigid, and yet deeply decayed, temporal organization of religious affairs; and in their uneasy fretting against that unworthy rule, the various centres of irritation put up now one startling theory which they knew would annoy the official Church, now another, perhaps the exact opposite of the last. Now they denied something as old as Europe–such as the right to property: now a new piece of usage or discipline such as Communion in one kind: now a partial regional rule, such as celibacy. Some went stark mad. Others, at the contrary extreme, did no more than expose false relics.
A general social ill-ease was the parent of all these sporadic heresies. Many had elaborate systems, but none of these systems was a true creed, that is, a motive . No one of the outbursts had any philosophic driving power behind it; all and each were no more than violent and blind reactions against a clerical authority which gave scandal and set up an intolerable strain.
Shall I give an example? One of the most popular forms which the protest took, was what I have just mentioned, a demand for Communion in both kinds and for the restoration of what was in many places ancient custom, the drinking from the cup after the priest.
Could anything better prove the truth that mere irritation against the external organization of the Church was the power at work? Could any point have less to do with the fundamentals of the Faith? Of course, as an implication of false doctrine–as that the Priesthood is not an Order, or that the Presence of Our Lord is not in both species–it had its importance. But in itself how trivial a "kick." Why should anyone desire the cup save to mark dissension from established custom!
Here is another example. Prominent among the later expressions of discontent you have the Adamites, /25/ who among other tenets rejected clothes upon the more solemn occasions of their ritual and went naked: raving maniacs. The whole business was a rough and tumble of protest against the breakdown of a social system whose breakdown seemed the more terrible because it had been such a haven! Because it was in essence founded upon the most intimate appetites of European men. The heretics were angry because they had lost their home.
This very general picture omits Huss and the national movement for which he stood. It omits the Papal Schism; the Council of Constance; all the great facts of the fifteenth century on its religious side. I am concerned only with the presentation of the general character of the time, and that character was what I have described: an irrepressible, largely justified, discontent breaking out: a sort of chronic rash upon the skin of Christian Europe, which rash the body of Christendom could neither absorb nor cure.
Now at this point–and before we leave the fifteenth century–there is another historical feature which it is of the utmost importance to seize if we are to understand what followed; for it was a feature common to all European thought until a time long after the final establishment of permanent cleavage in Europe. It is a feature which nearly all historians neglect and yet one manifest upon the reading of any contemporary expression. That feature is this: No one in the Reformation dreamt a divided Christendom to be possible .
This flood of heretical movement was oecumenical ; it was not peculiar to one race or climate or culture or nation. The numberless uneasy innovators thought, even the wildest of them, in terms of Europe as a whole. They desired to affect the universal Church and change it en bloc . They had no local ambition. They stood for no particular blood or temperament; they sprang up everywhere, bred by the universal ill-ease of a society still universal. You were as likely to get an enthusiast declaring himself to be the Messiah in Seville as an enthusiast denying the Real Presence in Aberdeen.
That fatal habit of reading into the past what we know of its future has in this matter most deplorably marred history, and men, whether Protestant or Catholic, who are now accustomed to Protestantism, read Protestantism and the absurd idea of a local religion–a religion true in one place and untrue in another–into a time where the least instructed clown would have laughed in your face at such nonsense.
The whole thing, the evil coupled with a quite ineffectual resistance to the evil, was a thing common to all Europe.
It is the nature of any organic movement to progress or to recede. But this movement was destined to advance with devastating rapidity, and that on account of what I have called the second factor in the Reformation: the very rapid accretion in technical power which marked the close of the Middle Ages.
Printing; navigation; all mensuration; the handling of metals and every material–all these took a sudden leap forward with the Renaissance , the revival of arts: that vast stirring of the later Middle Ages which promised to give us a restored antiquity Christianized: which was burnt in the flame of a vile fanaticism, and has left us nothing but ashes and incommiscible salvage.
Physical knowledge, the expansion of physical experience and technical skill, were moving in the century before the Reformation at such a rate that a contemporary spiritual phenomenon, if it advanced at all, was bound to advance very rapidly, and this spiritual eruption in Europe came to a head just at the moment when the contemporary expansion of travel, of economic activity and of the revival of learning, had also emerged in their full force.
It was in the first twenty years of the sixteenth century that the coalescing of the various forces of spiritual discontent and revolt began to be apparent. Before 1530 the general storm was to burst and the Reformation proper to be started on its way.
But as a preliminary to that matter, the reader should first understand how another and quite disconnected social development had prepared the way for the triumph of the reformers. This development was the advent of Absolute Government in civil affairs.
Here and there in the long history of Europe there crops up an isolated accident, very striking, very effective, of short duration. We have already seen that the Norman race was one of these. Tyranny in civil government (which accompanied the Reformation) was another.
A claim to absolute monarchy is one of the commonest and most enduring of historical things. Countless centuries of the old Empires of the East were passed under such a claim, the Roman Empire was based upon it; the old Russian State was made by it, French society luxuriated in it for one magnificent century, from the accession of Louis XIV. till Fontenoy. It is the easiest and (when it works) the most prompt of all instruments.
But the sense of an absolute civil government at the moment of the Reformation was something very different. It was a demand, an appetite, proceeding from the whole community, a worship of civil authority. It was deification of the State and of law; it was the adoration of the Executive.
"This governs me; therefore I will worship it and do all it tells me." Such is the formula for the strange passion which has now and then seized great bodies of human beings intoxicated by splendor and by the vivifying effects of command. Like all manias (for it is a mania) this exaggerated passion is hardly comprehended once it is past. Like all manias, while it is present it overrides every other emotion.
Europe, in the time of which I speak, suffered such a mania. The free cities manifested that disease quite as much as the great monarchical states. In Rome itself the temporal power of the Papal sovereign was then magnificent beyond all past parallel. In Geneva Calvin was a god. In Spain Charles and Philip governed two worlds without question. In England the Tudor dynasty was worshipped blindly. Men might and did rebel against a particular government, but it was only to set up something equally absolute in its place. Not the form but the fact of government was adored.
I will not waste the reader's time in any discussion upon the causes of that astonishing political fever. It must suffice to say that for a moment it hypnotized the whole world. It would have been incomprehensible to the Middle Ages. It was incomprehensible to the nineteenth century. It wholly occupied the sixteenth. If we understand it, we largely understand what made the success of the Reformation possible.
Well, then, the increasing discontent of the masses against the decaying forms of the Middle Ages, and the increasing irritation against the temporal government and the organization of the Church, came to a head just at that moment when civil government was worshipped as an awful and almost divine thing.
Into such an atmosphere was launched the last and the strongest of the overt protests against the old social scheme, and in particular against the existing power of the Papacy, especially upon its economic side.
The name most prominently associated with the crisis is that of Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, German by birth and speech, and one of those exuberant sensual, rather inconsequential, characters which so easily attract hearty friendships, and which can never pretend to organization or command, though certainly to creative power. What he precisely meant or would do, no man could tell, least of all himself. He was "out" for protest and he floated on the crest of the general wave of change. That he ever intended, nay, that he could ever have imagined, a disruption of the European Unity is impossible.
Luther (a voice, no leader) was but one of many: had he never lived, the great bursting wave would have crashed onward much the same. One scholar after another (and these of every blood and from every part of Europe) joined in the upheaval. The opposition of the old monastic training to the newly revived classics, of the ascetic to the new pride of life, of the logician to the mystic, all these in a confused whirl swept men of every type into the disruption. One thing only united them. They were all inflamed with a vital necessity for change. Great names which in the ultimate challenge refused to destroy and helped to preserve–the greatest is that of Erasmus; great names which even appear in the roll of that of the Catholic martyrs–the blessed Thomas More is the greatest of these–must here be counted with the names of men like the narrow Calvin on the one hand, the large Rabelais upon the other. Not one ardent mind in the first half of the sixteenth century but was swept into the stream.
Now all this would and must have been quieted in the process of time, the mass of Christendom would have settled back into unity, the populace would have felt instinctively the risk they ran of spoliation by the rich and powerful, if the popular institutions of Christendom broke down: the masses would have all swung round to solidifying society after an upheaval (it is their function): we should have attained repose and Europe, united again, would have gone forward as she did after the rocking of four hundred years before–but for that other factor of which I have spoken, the passion which this eager creative moment felt for the absolute in civil government–that craving for the something godlike which makes men worship a flag, a throne or a national hymn.
This it was which caught up and, in the persons of particular men, used the highest of the tide. Certain princes in the Germanies (who had, of all the groups of Europe, least grasped the meaning of authority) befriended here one heresiarch and there another. The very fact that the Pope of Rome stood for one of these absolute governments put other absolute governments against him. The wind of the business rose; it became a quarrel of sovereigns. And the sovereigns decided, and powerful usurping nobles or leaders decided, the future of the herd.
Two further characters appeared side by side in the earthquake that was breaking up Europe.
The first was this: the tendency to fall away from European unity seemed more and more marked in those outer places which lay beyond the original limits of the old Roman Empire, and notably in the Northern Netherlands and in Northern Germany–where men easily submitted to the control of wealthy merchants and of hereditary landlords.
The second was this: a profound distrust of the new movement, a reaction against it, a feeling that moral anarchy was too profitable to the rich and the cupidinous, began at first in a dull, later in an angry way, to stir the masses of the populace throughout all Christendom.
The stronger the old Latin sense of human equality was, the more the populace felt this, the more they instinctively conceived of the Reformation as something that would rob them of some ill-understood but profound spiritual guarantee against slavery, exploitation and oppression.
There began a sort of popular grumbling against the Reformers, who were now already schismatic: their rich patrons fell under the same suspicion. By the time the movement had reached a head and by the time the central power of the Church had been openly defied by the German princes, this protest took, as in France and England and the valley of the Rhone (the ancient seats of culture), a noise like the undertone of the sea before bad weather. In the outer Germanies it was not a defence of Christendom at all, but a brutish cry for more food. But everywhere the populace stirred.
A general observer, cognizant of what was to come, would have been certain at that moment that the populace would rise. When it rose intelligently the movement against the Church and civilization would come to nothing. The Revolt elsewhere–in half barbaric Europe–would come to no more than the lopping off of outer and insignificant things. The Baltic Plain, sundry units of the outer Germanies and Scandinavia, probably Hungary, possibly Bohemia, certain mountain valleys in Switzerland and Savoy and France and the Pyrenees, which had suffered from lack of instruction and could easily be recovered–these would be affected. The outer parts, which had never been within the pale of the Roman Empire might go. But the soul and intelligence of Europe would be kept sound; its general body would reunite and Christendom would once more reappear whole and triumphant. It would have reconquered these outer parts at its leisure: and Poland was a sure bastion. We should, within a century, have been ourselves once more: Christian men.
So it would have been–but for one master tragedy, which changed the whole scheme. Of the four great remaining units of Western civilization, Iberia, Italy, Britain, Gaul, one, at this critical moment, broke down by a tragic accident and lost continuity. It was hardly intended. It was a consequence of error much more than an act of will. But it had full effect.
The breakdown of Britain and her failure to resist disruption was the chief event of all. It made the Reformation permanent. It confirmed a final division in Europe.
By a curious accident, one province, extraneous to the Empire, Ireland, heroically preserved what the other extraneous provinces, the Germanies and Scandinavia, were to lose. In spite of the loss of Britain, and cut off by that loss from direct succor, Ireland preserved the tradition of civilization.
It must be my next business to describe the way in which Britain failed in the struggle, and, at the hands of the King, and of a little group of avaricious men (such as the Howards among the gentry, and the Cecils among the adventurers) changed for the worse the history of Europe.

Here Ends Chapter VIII of Europe and the Faith; which continues in Chapter IX.

NOTES

/24/ It is true that Gibbon was ill equipped for his task because he lacked historical imagination. He could not grasp the spirit of a past age. He could not enter into any mood save that of his master, Voltaire. But it is not only true of Gibbon that he fails to explain the great revolution of A.D. 29-304. No one attempting that explanation has succeeded. It was not of this world.

/25/ The rise of these oddities is nearly contemporary with Wycliffe and is, like his career, about one hundred years previous to the Reformation proper: the sects are of various longevity. Some, like the Calvinists, have, while dwindling rapidly in numbers, kept their full doctrines for now four hundred years, others like the Johanna Southcottites hardly last a lifetime: others like the Modernists a decade or less: others like the Mormons near a century, their close is not yet. I myself met a man in Colorado in 1891 whose friends thought him the Messiah. Unlike the Wycliffites certain members of the Adamites until lately survived in Austria.]