HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Rulers and Subjects (2)

Big question

How did early modern Europeans challenge traditional authority, and  make sense of political and religious dissent?

Video introduction

Learning outcomes

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

Questions to consider, and learning activity

The main questions for discussion in this week's Forum are:When you make your contributions to the Discussion, 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 Discussion in Brightspace 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!


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.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.

Not all Catholics were opposed to reform, and the Jesuits (who we will see several times in this course) were a major example of Catholic reformers in the early modern era. It is also important to know that not all Protestants considered themselves followers of Luther. 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". Both 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).

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, with the monarch as the head of the Anglican church, 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, which continued under her successor, 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 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 (remember the caution that Henry VIII exercised in his concern that radical reform might upset public order) 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.

This lesson gives you an opportunity to compare and contrast the views of King Charles, the Levellers, and the Diggers. Keep the sources from the previous Lesson in mind, too! Remember the lesson on feudalism, and the notion of vassalage? Prior to the Reformation, these "feudal" relationships of lords and overlords frequently complicated the relationships between monarchs and the Catholic Church!


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

Secondary sources


Listen to

Supplemental material

If you are really interested in learning more about what happened after the regicide of Charles I, consider the following Podcast!Other history courses at Brock University that explore similar themes to this lesson are:Recent historians have argued that the significance 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.)

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