HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Rulers and Subjects (2)

Big question

How did early modern Europeans make sense of political and religious disunity? What rules did English Protestants and European Catholics set to try to deal with religious diversity and disunity?

Video introduction

Prof. Driedger and Prof. Samson do not have a video introduction for this week. In its place there is a slightly goofy but still very valuable short introduction to medieval Christianity and early Protestantism by John Green of The World History Crash Course series (https://thecrashcourse.com/courses/worldhistory1). This episode (#218 from 2014) is about "Luther and the Protestant Reformation". When you watch it, take notes and then compare John Green's interpretations of Reformation history with the interpretations in the textbook chapter included below.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

The particular questions for discussion in this week's Forum all require you to use the sources in the video introduction and the primary and secondary source lists below. The questions are:When you make your contributions to the Forum, make sure you also continue to practice the skills of careful primary source analysis that you learned in the previous Lesson as well as the skills outlined in the Toolbox below.

Remember: Your contributions to the Forum in Sakai need only focus on a limited and manageable aspect of the questions above. You cannot (and should not try) to answer all questions in one post. The reason is that all good posts should include evidence from the sources, and it is very unlikely that you can write a good, source-based answer in a few hundred words.


In the previous Lesson about rulers and subjects you learned about political ideals such as the estates model of society and the Great Chain of Being. For the most part these were ideals that encouraged Europeans to remain obedient to the established authorities in their churches and territorial governments. Although the ideals of obedience were strong in early modern Europe, they came under pressure from time to time.

The main goal of this lesson is to introduce you to the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century. Think about this statement when you listen to and read the secondary sources. Both John Green's video and the excerpts from The Making of the West use the singular (Reformation), but notice that both sources describe a very diverse collection of religious groups that fall under the category of "Protestant".

One of the important features of religious schisms (divisions) that you should pay attention for is the ways that competitions between Protestants and Catholics (as well as between various groups of Protestants) created problems that Europeans had to try to solve. For example, the early modern period included a series of wars between Europe's kingdoms that are sometimes described as wars of religion (although their causes were much more complex than this label suggests). Three majors cases of these conflicts are the French civil wars of the sixteenth century, the Thirty Years War of the early seventeenth century, and the British civil wars of the mid seventeenth century. For more on conflicts in the British Isles, see the section on "Religion and Royal Authority in Early Modern England" that is below.


It’s easy to think of Christianity as a single religion, led by “a” church. That is certainly the way people often speak about “it” in everyday discussions. Do not make this mistake when you write about sources in this course! For historians who want to understand the very fascinating history of Christianity, it is more helpful to speak about Christianities in the plural. This is because Christians formed diverse sets of communities right from their earliest years in the ancient world.

This diversity is important to emphasize in a course on the early modern world, since most of the Europeans who colonized the Atlantic world were Christians, but their Christianity (Christianities) came in several forms. The origins of the most important differences between Christian colonizers that we look at in this course are to be found not in the ancient world, but rather in the Reformation(s) of the sixteenth century.

The early sixteenth century was a era of significant change. Not only were Europeans becoming aware of a vast world across the Atlantic Ocean, but more and more of them were also gaining access to books reproduced on the printing presses that were spreading quickly across Europe. Amid these major changes, a fairly minor dispute about the Papal indulgences (payments to release the souls of the dead from Purgatory) in the German province of Saxony escalated starting in 1517 into a major power struggle between supporters of the Pope’s absolute authority and those who wanted to reform the Church from within. Martin Luther, who was a young and relatively unimportant Saxon priest at the start of this controversy, and his allies used the printing press in their fight against Indulgences. Note: They were Catholic reformers. The Pope insisted that Luther stop his calls for reform. Luther refused. While Luther was not originally an opponent of the Pope in 1517, he quickly turned into an enthusiastic critic of the Papacy. When Luther started to gain many wealthy and powerful allies, including many German princes who ruled territories like Saxony, the regional dispute turned into a new and permanent division among European Christians. Those who supported Luther became known as Protestants (i.e., "protesters"). Those who remained loyal to the Pope became known as Roman Catholics. This is useful background for the secondary reading from The Making of the West. However, it is also useful to know that the importance of the year 1517 has been exaggerated by Lutheran historians. The British historian Peter Marshall has pointed to this exaggeration in his recent book with a title that gives a good sense of its argument -- 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation (2017). Marshall argues that it was not until the nineteenth century that the myth that Luther's ideas caused the Reformation starting in 1517 were widely held outside of Protestant circles. (It's not required for this Lesson, but if you're interested in the Marshall thesis, you may read his summary of the argument in an article he published in The Conversation from 2017.)

The primary sources for this week are two examples of documents from the early modern period in which influential men tried to set out rules of behaviour and belief that were meant to regulate religious life, and maybe by extension solve the problems of religious conflict. While "the Reformation" is usually associated with the rise of Protestantism, it is helpful to remember that not all Catholics were opposed to reform. One of the primary documents might even count as an example of Catholic Reformation. Do either of the secondary sources mention Catholic reform? If so, how? It is worth noting that the Jesuits are a major example of Catholic reformers in the early modern era, and the Council of Trent was a major gathering, held over many years, at which Catholics searched for ways of reforming Christianity without rejecting the authority of the Pope.

It is also important to know that not all Protestants considered themselves followers of Luther. For example, Prof. Driedger studies Anabaptists and Mennonites, Protestants who baptized adults instead of children, and who became labelled as "sectarians" or "fanatics" (even criminals) because of this conviction. We won't read much in this course about Anabaptists, and only sometimes about Lutherans or Anglicans. Instead, in our course most of the Protestants we will read about came from the tradition associated with John Calvin. These people sometimes called themselves Calvinists, or sometimes simply "the Reformed".

Jesuits and Reformed Protestants are important for us because people from these branches of Christianity had a strong missionary impulse and played a major role in European expansion.

What were the consequences of ecclesiastical divisions in European history? The graphic below represents the estates model of society before the early modern era, and then the same model as it was modified in the Western Christian world after about 1530 (not 1517). When you read the primary sources, can you find examples of how Catholics and Protestants adapted the estates model (and maybe also the Great Chain of Being) in their competing statements of faith?

Religion and Royal Authority in Early Modern England

Religious reforms did not only lead to conflicts on the European continent. They also divided English men and women.

In the sixteenth century, Reformed missionaries made many converts in the British Isles, but others remained loyal to the Pope and the Catholic Church. To complicate matters further, England became officially Anglican (a variety of Protestantism) under King Henry VIII, who had several Protestant reformers executed for heresy, because he thought their calls for reform went too far and were dangerous to public order. Although Henry made his Kingdom into a Protestant (Anglican) nation, one of his successors (Queen Mary) was a staunch Catholic who reconverted her Kingdom to the Papal cause and who persecuted Protestants. In the reign of the famous Queen Elizabeth, England became a Protestant nation again. Her successor was James VI / I, who we know from the last Lesson. In other words, religious and political concerns were closely entangled in England and the British Isles as a whole.

Another example of the entanglement of religion and politics was the fact that church membership could change one's political rights. By the end of the sixteenth century, most Englishmen and Englishwomen were Protestants who held strongly anti-Catholic views, and these Protestants worked to exclude Catholics from English public life. The belief that Catholicism was an aberrant faith and that the Pope was an enemy of all true Christians had been strengthened among English men and women by two famous events: the failed Spanish attempt to invade the British Isles in 1588, and by a failed Catholic plot to blow up the Parliament Building in London in 1605.

While many (even most) English Protestants shared a distrust or hatred of Catholics, and while they usually considered themselves loyal subjects of their monarch, they were not always united. For us in this course, the era of the English Civil War (sometimes also called the English Revolution) in the seventeenth century can serve as an example. For a variety of reasons disagreements became so strong after about 1640, in fact, that some Protestants put their Protestant King on trial for treason, and executed him in 1649!!! In this era of the English Civil War religion became a very divisive subject -- a highly charged political subject.

One of the primary sources for this week was written originally 1571 in the reign of Elizabeth I, and then revised again in 1662, in the aftermath of the English Civil War and other complications that followed it.


In last week’s Toolbox you learned about the skills of primary source analysis:In this week's Forum you should continue to practice these skills. See the Toolbox in the previous Lesson for more details.

Primary sources

This week there are two main primary sources. Each is an example of a confession of faith. Individual believers could (and still can) publish their own statements of faith. The sources that we will be reading were not written by individuals but rather by committees of men who summarized the beliefs, rituals and allegiances of a large group of people who professed to belong to what they claimed was the proper form of Christianity. These confessions of faith are not to be confused with the sacrament (Christian ritual) of confession. One of the confessions of faith was written for English Protestants; the other was written for Catholics across Europe (and the world).

Secondary sources

This week there are two secondary sources. One is a traditional written source: a selection from a textbook from 2007 that you can find below. The other is a podcast from 2014, and you can find it in the video introduction at the top of this Lesson. Both are relatively short, and both have their advantages and limitations.

Supplemental material

If you are interested in learning more about the themes in this Lesson, you might consider taking Brock University history courses such as:Note that these courses are not offered every year. Mike Driedger has taught HIST 2P91 several times in the past. You might remember from his introduction in Week 01 that he is a specialist in Anabaptist and Mennonite history. You can find out more about his course on Europe's Reformations by visiting the course website.

One footnote from Mike Driedger's research that is relevant for the secondary readings for this week is that the picture that the authors of The Making of the West use to illustrate "The Torture and Execution of an Anabaptist Leader" is NOT from the sixteenth century. It's actually by Joseph Sattler, a German artist from the late nineteenth century. This is an example of poor sourcing by the creators of the textbook. Mike Driedger has co-authored a book from 2009 about the subject of Anabaptist rule in Münster.

Finally, here's a fun fact about "the Reformation." In 2017 Lutherans around the world celebrated what they think of as the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The celebration was especially popular in Germany, the historical home of Lutherans. There the years from 2008 to 2017 were called the Luther decade. During these years of celebration, the Playmobil toy company (which is based near Nuremberg in Germany) created a Martin Luther Playmobil figure. Believe it or not, this is the best-selling Playmobil figure of all time! Take a look at the two boxes for the German and English versions of the figurine. Do you notice any differences? One of the differences that might be difficult to spot became the focus of a controversy that is related to Martin Luther's legacy of anti-Jewish attitudes. You can find out more about this controversy by reading Tom Heneghan's article in USA Today from 2017, and you can learn more about the German celebrations in 2017 by reading Bridget Heal's article in The Conversation from that year.

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