The Reformation: was it a German thing?

Fans of the marvellous BBC TV Drama Wolf Hall, set in the treacherous court of its King Henry VIII, cannot avoid one conclusion: the years 1529-1533, in England, were absolutely crucial to the success or failure of the Reformation, that profound cultural and economic split in European history. Whatever Henry’s motives, a European Power of real size had now joined the movement. Without it, the smaller Protestant states of Germany and the Netherlands might well have been crushed beneath the Catholic-Hapsburg juggernaut. As it was, England provided an inviolable refuge, a source of arms, money and diplomatic recourse for the new movement which saw it through.

One odd thing struck us: the Reformation began in German speaking lands, spreading to places like Scandinavia, England and the Netherlands, where they all speak in the German branch of the Indo-European language family. The Papacy remained secure in Latin lands like Italy, France and Spain, which have remained staunchly Catholic to this day. Coincidence? Or is something else going on?

Fans of Medieval history will recall the Holy Roman Empire. At its peak in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries it was the most powerful political entity around, holding much of what is now Germany. Italy and central Europe, and of course the Popes, in its grasp. It took the Papacy centuries and a whole series of wars (the Investiture Struggles) to bring its Nordic neighbour to heel. So, when Luther nailed his theses to the famous door in 1519, the Empire was there alright: but no one lay awake at night worrying about what it might do, least of all the Pope.

Yes, there were plenty of Catholics in England, and lots of Reform-minded people in France, at least initially. But after the long series of wars finally culminated in a Peace of sorts, was the linguistic map of Europe a coincidence? Most of the Protestants were in the German speaking North, and most of the Catholics in the Latin south. Gradually, the former seemed to pull away economically and culturally, for many centuries. Was this the final revenge of the old Holy Roman Empire?

#reformation #counter reformation #religion #catholic #protestant #martin luther #germanic languages # latin languages

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