History of the Catholic Church
The Reformation and the Defection of Britain
The Christendom of Europe understood from within
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 catalog, 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. [Footnote: 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.]
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 aging and a growing fatigue of the simple medieval 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 medieval 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 cooperative 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 centers 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 centers 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, [Footnote: 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.] 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 dreamed a divided Christendom to be possible.
This flood of heretical movement was ecumenical; 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 unmingled 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 worshiped 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 worshiped 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 defense 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.
The Defection of BritainOne thing stands out in the fate of modern Europe: the profound cleavage due to the Reformation. One thing made that wound (it was almost mortal) so deep and lasting: the failure of one ancient province of civilization, and one only, to keep the Faith: this province whereof I write: Britain.
The capital event, the critical moment, in the great struggle of the Faith against the Reformation, was the defection of Britain.
It is a point which the modern historian, who is still normally anti-Catholic, does not and cannot make. Yet the defection of Britain from the Faith of Europe three hundred years ago is certainly the most important historical event in the last thousand years: between the saving of Europe from the barbarians and these our own times. It is perhaps the most important historical event since the triumph of the Catholic Church under Constantine.
Let me recapitulate the factors of the problem as they would be seen by an impartial observer from some great distance in time, or in space, or in mental attitude. Let me put them as they would appear to one quite indifferent to, and remote from, the antagonists.
To such an observer the history of Europe would be that of the great Roman Empire passing through the transformation I have described: its mind first more and more restless, then more and more tending to a certain conclusion, and that conclusion the Catholic Church.
To summarize what has gone before: the Catholic Church becomes by the fifth century the soul, the vital principle, the continuity of Europe. It next suffers grievously from the accident, largely geographical, of the Eastern schism. It is of its nature perpetually subject to assault; from within, because it deals with matters not open to positive proof; from without, because all those, whether aliens or guests or parasites, who are not of our civilization, are naturally its enemies.
The Roman Empire of the West, in which the purity and the unity of this soul were preserved from generation to generation, declined in its body during the Dark Ages—say, up to and rather beyond the year 1000. It became coarsened and less in its material powers. It lost its central organization, the Imperial Court (which was replaced first by provincial military leaders or "kings," then, later, by a mass of local lordships jumbled into more or less national groups). In building, in writing, in cooking, in clothing, in drawing, in sculpture, the Roman Empire of the West (which is ourselves) forgot all but the fundamentals of its arts—but it expanded so far as its area is concerned. A whole belt of barbaric Germany received the Roman influence—Baptism and the Mass. With the Creed there came to these outer parts reading and writing, building in brick and stone—all the material essentials of our civilization—and what is characteristic of that culture, the power of thinking more clearly.
It is centuries before this slow digestion of the barbarian reached longitude ten degrees east, and the Scandinavian peninsula. But a thousand years after Our Lord it has reached even these, and there remains between the unbroken tradition of our civilization in the West and the schismatic but Christian civilization of the Greek Church, nothing but a belt of paganism from the corner of the Baltic southward, which belt is lessened, year after year, by the armed efforts and the rational dominance of Latin culture. Our Christian and Roman culture proceeds continuously eastward, mastering the uncouth.
After this general picture of a civilization dominating and mastering in its material decline a vastly greater area than it had known in the height of its material excellence—this sort of expansion in the dark—the impartial observer, whom we have supposed, would remark a sort of dawn.
That dawn came with the eleventh century; 1000-1100. The Norman race, the sudden invigoration of the Papacy, the new victories in Spain, at last the first Crusade, mark a turn in the tide of material decline, and that tide works very rapidly towards a new and intense civilization which we call that of the Middle Ages: that high renewal which gives Europe a second and most marvelous life, which is a late reflowering of Rome, but of Rome revivified with the virtue and the humor of the Faith.
The second thing that the observer would note in so general a picture would be the peculiar exception formed within it by the group of large islands lying to the North and West of the Continent. Of these the larger, Britain, had been a true Roman Province; but very early in the process—in the middle and end of the fifth century—it had on the first assault of the barbarians been cut off for more than the lifetime of a man. Its gate had been held by the barbarian. Then it was re-Christianized almost as thoroughly as though even its Eastern part had never lost the authority of civilization. The Mission of St. Augustine recaptured Britain—but Britain is remarkable in the history of civilization for the fact that alone of civilized lands it needed to be recaptured at all. The western island of the two, the smaller island, Ireland, presented another exception.
It was not compelled to the Christian culture, as were the German barbarians of the Continent, by arms. No Charlemagne with his Gallic armies forced it tardily to accept baptism. It was not savage like the Germanies; it was therefore under no necessity to go to school. It was not a morass of shifting tribes; it was a nation. But in a most exceptional fashion, though already possessed, and perhaps because so possessed, of a high pagan culture of its own, it accepted within the lifetime of a man, and by spiritual influences alone, the whole spirit of the Creed. The civilization of the Roman West was accepted by Ireland, not as a command nor as an influence, but as a discovery.
Now let this peculiar fate of the two islands to the north and west of the Continent remain in the observer's mind, and he will note, when the shock of what is called "the Reformation" comes, new phenomena attaching to those islands, cognate to their early history.
Those phenomena are the thesis which I have to present in the pages that follow.
What we call "the Reformation" was essentially the reaction of the barbaric, the ill-tutored and the isolated places external to the old and deep-rooted Roman civilization, against the influences of that civilization. The Reformation was not racial. Even if there were such a physical thing as a "Teutonic Race" (and there is nothing of the kind), the Reformation shows no coincidence with that race. The Reformation is simply the turning-back of that tide of Roman culture which, for five hundred years, had set steadily forward and had progressively dominated the insufficient by the sufficient, the slower by the quicker, the confused by the clear-headed. It was a sort of protest by the conquered against a moral and intellectual superiority which offended them. The Slavs of Bohemia joined in that sincere protest of the lately and insufficiently civilized, quite as strongly as, and even earlier than, the vague peoples of the Sandy Heaths along the Baltic. The Scandinavian, physically quite different from these tribes of the Baltic Plain, comes into the game. Wretched villages in the mark of Brandenburg, as Slavonic in type as the villages of Bohemia, revolt as naturally against exalted and difficult mystery as do the isolated villages of the Swedish valleys or the isolated rustics of the Cevennes or the Alps. The revolt is confused, instinctive, and therefore enjoying the sincere motive which accompanies such risings, but deprived of unity and of organizing power. There has never been a fixed Protestant creed. The common factor has been, and is, reaction against the traditions of Europe.
Now the point to seize is this:
Inimical as such a revolt was to souls or (to speak upon the mere historical plane) to civilization, bad as it was that the tide of culture should have begun to ebb from the far regions which it had once so beneficently flooded, the Reformation, that is, the reaction against the unity, the discipline, and the clear thought of Europe, would never have counted largely in human affairs had it been confined to the external fringe of the civilized world. That fringe would probably have been reconquered. The inherent force attaching to reality and to the stronger mind should have led to its recovery. The Northern Germanies were, as a fact, reconquered when Richelieu stepped in and saved them from their Southern superiors. But perhaps it would not have been reconquered. Perhaps it would have lapsed quite soon into its original paganism. At any rate European culture would have continued undivided and strong without these outer regions. Unfortunately a far worse thing happened.
Europe was rent and has remained divided.
The disaster was accomplished through forces I will now describe.
Though the revolt was external to the foundations of Europe, to the ancient provinces of the Empire, yet an external consequence of that revolt arose within the ancient provinces. It may be briefly told. The wealthy took advantage within the heart of civilization itself of this external revolt against order; for it is always to the advantage of the wealthy to deny general conceptions of right and wrong, to question a popular philosophy and to weaken the drastic and immediate power of the human will, organized throughout the whole community. It is always in the nature of great wealth to be insanely tempted (though it should know from active experience how little wealth can give), to push on to more and more domination over the bodies of men—and it can do so best by attacking fixed social restraints.
The landed squires then, and the great merchants, powerfully supported by the Jewish financial communities in the principal towns, felt that—with the Reformation—their opportunity had come. The largest fortune holders, the nobles, the merchants of the ports and local capitals even in Gaul (that nucleus and stronghold of ordered human life) licked their lips. Everywhere in Northern Italy, in Southern Germany, upon the Rhine, wherever wealth had congested in a few hands, the chance of breaking with the old morals was a powerful appeal to the wealthy; and, therefore, throughout Europe, even in its most ancient seats of civilization, the outer barbarian had allies.
These rich men, whose avarice betrayed Europe from within, had no excuse. Theirs was not any dumb instinctive revolt like that of the Outer Germanies, the Outer Slavs, nor the neglected mountain valleys, against order and against clear thought, with all the hard consequences that clear thought brings. They were in no way subject to enthusiasm for the vaguer emotions roused by the Gospel or for the more turgid excitements derivable from Scripture and an uncorrected orgy of prophecy. They were "on the make." The rich in Montpelier and Nîmes, a knot of them in Rome itself, many in Milan, in Lyons, in Paris, enlisted intellectual aid for the revolt, flattered the atheism of the Renaissance, supported the strong inflamed critics of clerical misliving, and even winked solemnly at the lunatic inspirations of obscure men and women filled with "visions." They did all these things as though their object was religious change. But their true object was money.
One group, and one alone, of the European nations was too recently filled with combat against vile non-Christian things to accept any parley with this anti-Christian turmoil. That unit was the Iberian Peninsula. It is worthy of remark, especially on the part of those who realize that the sword fits the hand of the Church and that Catholicism is never more alive than when it is in arms, I say it is worthy of remark by these that Spain and Portugal through the very greatness of an experience still recent when the Reformation broke, lost the chance of combat. There came indeed, from Spain (but from the Basque nation there) that weapon of steel, the Society of Jesus, which St. Ignatius formed, and which, surgical and military, saved the Faith, and therefore Europe. But the Iberian Peninsula rejecting as one whole and with contempt and with abhorrence (and rejecting rightly) any consideration of revolt—even among its rich men—thereby lost its opportunity for combat. It did not enjoy the religious wars which revivified France, and it may be urged that Spain would be the stronger today had it fallen to her task, as it did to the general populace of Gaul, to come to hand-grips with the Reformation at home, to test it, to know it, to dominate it, to bend the muscles upon it, and to reemerge triumphant from the struggle.
I say, then, that there was present in the field against the Church a powerful ally for the Reformers: and that ally was the body of immoral rich who hoped to profit by a general break in the popular organization of society. The atheism and the wealth, the luxury and the sensuality, the scholarship and aloofness of the Renaissance answered, over the heads of the Catholic populace, the call of barbarism. The Iconoclasts of greed joined hands with the Iconoclasts of blindness and rage and with the Iconoclasts of academic pride.
Nevertheless, even with such allies, barbarism would have failed, the Reformation would today be but an historical episode without fruit, Europe would still be Christendom, had not there been added the decisive factor of all—which was the separation of Britain.
Now how did Britain go, and why was the loss of Britain of such capital importance?
The loss of Britain was of such capital importance because Britain alone of those who departed, was Roman, and therefore capable of endurance and increase. And why did Britain fail in that great ordeal? It is a question harder to answer.
The province of Britain was not a very great one in area or in numbers, when the Reformation broke out. It was, indeed, very wealthy for its size, as were the Netherlands, but its mere wealth does not account for the fundamental importance of the loss of Britain to the Faith in the sixteenth century. The real point was that one and only one of the old Roman provinces with their tradition of civilization, letters, persuasive power, multiple soul—one and only one went over to the barbaric enemy and gave that enemy its aid. That one was Britain. And the consequence of its defection was the perpetuation and extension of an increasingly evil division within the structure of the West.
To say that Britain lost hold of tradition in the sixteenth century because Britain is "Teutonic," is to talk nonsense. It is to explain a real problem by inventing unreal words. Britain is not "Teutonic," nor does the word "Teutonic" itself mean anything definite. To say that Britain revolted because the seeds of revolt were stronger in her than in any ancient province of Europe, is to know nothing of history. The seeds of revolt were in her then as they were in every other community; as they must be in every individual who may find any form of discipline a burden which he is tempted, in a moment of disorder, to lay down. But to pretend that England and the lowlands of Scotland, to pretend that the Province of Britain in our general civilization was more ready for the change than the infected portions of Southern Gaul, or the humming towns of Northern Italy, or the intense life of Hainult, or Brabant, is to show great ignorance of the European past.
Well, then, how did Britain break away?
I beg the reader to pay a special attention to what follows. I believe it to be of capital value in explaining the general history of Europe, and I know it to be hardly ever told; or—if told at all—told only in fragments.
England went because of three things. First, her Squires had already become too powerful. In other words, the economic power of a small class of wealthy men had grown, on account of peculiar insular conditions, greater than was healthy for the community.
Secondly, England was, more than any other part of Western Europe (save the Batavian March), [Footnote: I mean Belgium: that frontier of Roman Influence upon the lower Rhine which so happily held out for the Faith and just preserved it.] a series of markets and of ports, a place of very active cosmopolitan influence, in which new opportunities for the corrupt, new messages of the enthusiastic, were frequent.
In the third place, that curious phenomena on which I dwelt in the last chapter, the superstitious attachment of citizens to the civil power, to awe of, and devotion to, the monarch, was exaggerated in England as nowhere else.
Now put these three things together, especially the first and third (for the second was both of minor importance and more superficial), and you will appreciate why England fell.
One small, too wealthy class, tainted with the atheism that always creeps into wealth long and securely enjoyed, was beginning to possess too much of English land. It would take far too long to describe here what the process had been. It is true that the absolute monopoly of the soil, the gripping and the strangling of the populace by landlords, is a purely Protestant development. Nothing of that kind had happened or would have been conceived of as possible in pre-Reformation England; but still something like a quarter of the land (or a little less) had already before the Reformation got into the full possession of one small class which had also begun to encroach upon the judiciary, in some measure to supplant the populace in local law-making, and quite appreciably to supplant the King in central law-making.
Let me not be misunderstood; the England of the fifteenth century, the England of the generation just before the Reformation, was not an England of Squires; it was not an England of landlords; it was still an England of Englishmen. The towns were quite free. To this day old boroughs nearly always show a great number of freeholds. The process by which the later English aristocracy (now a plutocracy) had grown up, was but in germ before the Reformation. Nor had that germ sprouted. But for the Reformation it would not have matured. Sooner or later a popular revolt (had the Faith revived) would have killed the growing usurpation of the wealthy. But the germ was there; and the Reformation coming just as it did, both was helped by the rich and helped them.
The slow acquisition of considerable power over the Courts of Law and over the soil of the country by an oligarchy, imperfect though that acquisition was as yet, already presented just after 1500 a predisposing condition to the disease. It may be urged that if the English people had fought the growing power of the Squires more vigorously, the Squires would not have mastered them as they did, during and on account of the religious revolution. Possibly; and the enemies of the English people are quick to suggest that some native sluggishness permitted the gradual weighing down of the social balance in favor of the rich. But no one who can even pretend to know medieval England will say that the English consciously desired or willingly permitted such a state of affairs to grow up. Successful foreign wars, dynastic trouble, a recent and vigorous awakening of national consciousness, which consciousness had centered in the wealthier classes—all these combined to let the evil in without warning, and, on the eve of the Reformation, a rich, avaricious class was already empowered to act in Britain, ready to grasp, as all the avaricious classes were throughout the Western world, at the opportunity to revolt against that Faith which has ever suspected, constrained and reformed the tyranny of wealth.
Now add to this the strange, but at that time very real, worship of government as a fetish. This spirit did not really strengthen government: far from it. A superstition never strengthens its object, nor even makes of the supposed power of that object a reality. But though it did not give real power to the long intention of the prince, it gave to the momentary word of the prince a fantastic power. In such a combination of circumstances—nascent oligarchy, but the prince worshiped—you get, holding the position of prince, Henry VIII., a thorough Tudor, that is, a man weak almost to the point of irresponsibility where his passions were concerned; violent from that fundamental weakness which, in the absence of opposition, ruins things as effectively as any strength.
No executive power in Europe was less in sympathy with the revolt against civilization than was the Tudor family. Upon the contrary, Henry VII, his son, and his two granddaughters if anything exceeded in their passion for the old order of the Western world. But at the least sign of resistance, Mary who burnt, Elizabeth who intrigued, Henry, their father, who pillaged, Henry, their grandfather, who robbed and saved, were one. To these characters slight resistance was a spur; with strong manifold opposition they were quite powerless to deal. Their minds did not grip (for their minds, though acute, were not large) but their passions shot. And one may compare them, when their passions of pride, of lust, of jealousy, of doting, of avarice or of facile power were aroused, to vehement children. Never was there a ruling family less statesmanlike; never one less full of stuff and of creative power.
Henry, urged by an imperious young woman, who had gained control of him, desired a divorce from his wife, Katherine of Aragon, grown old for him. The Papal Court temporized with him and opposed him. He was incapable of negotiation and still more incapable of foresight. His energy, which was "of an Arabian sort," blasted through the void, because a void was there: none would then withstand the Prince. Of course, it seemed to him no more than one of these recurrent quarrels with the mundane power of Rome, which all Kings (and Saints among them) had engaged in for many hundred years. All real powers thus conflict in all times. But, had he known it (and he did not know it), the moment was fatally inopportune for playing that game. Henry never meant to break permanently with the unity of Christendom. A disruption of that unity was probably inconceivable to him. He meant to "exercise pressure." All his acts from the decisive Proclamation of September 19, 1530, onwards prove it. But the moment was the moment of a breaking-point throughout Europe, and he, Henry, blundered into disaster without knowing what the fullness of that moment was. He was devout, especially to the Blessed Sacrament. He kept the Faith for himself, and he tried hard to keep it for others. But having lost unity, he let in what he loathed. Not, so long as he lived, could those doctrines of the Reformers triumph here: but he had compromised with their spirit, and at his death a strong minority—perhaps a tenth of England, more of London—was already hostile to the Creed.
It was the same thing with the suppression of the monasteries. Henry meant no effect on religion by that loot: he, none the less, destroyed it. He intended to enrich the Crown: he ruined it. In the matter of their financial endowment, an economic crisis, produced by the unequal growth of economic powers, had made the monastic foundation ripe for re-settlement. Religious orders were here wealthy without reason—poor in spirit and numbers, but rich in land; there impoverished without reason—rich in popularity and spiritual power, but poor in land. The dislocation, which all institutions necessarily suffer on the economic side through the mere efflux of time, inclined every government in Europe to a re-settlement of religious endowment. Everywhere it took place; everywhere it involved dissolution and restoration.
But Henry did not re-settle. He plundered and broke. He used the contemporary idolatry of executive power just as much at Reading or in the Blackfriars of London, where unthinking and immediate popular feeling was with him, as at Glastonbury where it was against him, as in Yorkshire where it was in arms, as in Galway where there was no bearing with it at all. There was no largeness in him nor any comprehension of complexity, and when in this Jacobin, unexampled way, he had simply got rid of that which he should have restored and transformed, of what effect was that vast act of spoliation? It paralyzed the Church. It ultimately brought down the Monarchy.
From a fourth to a third of the economic power over the means of production in England, which had been vested top-heavily in the religious foundations—here, far too rich, there, far too poor—Henry got by one enormous confiscation. Yet he made no permanent addition to the wealth of the Crown. On the contrary, he started its decline. The land passed by an instinctive multiple process—but very rapidly—to the already powerful class which had begun to dominate the villages. Then, when it was too late, the Tudors attempted to stem the tide. But the thing was done. Upon the indifference which is always common to a society long and profoundly Catholic and ignorant of heresy, or, having conquered heresy, ignorant at any rate of struggle for the Faith, two ardent minorities converged: the small minority of confused enthusiasts who really did desire what they believed to be a restoration of "primitive" Christianity: the much larger minority of men now grown almost invincibly powerful in the economic sphere. The Squires, twenty years after Henry's death, had come to possess, through the ruin of religion, something like half the land of England. With the rapidity of a fungus growth the new wealth spread over the desolation of the land. The enriched captured both the Universities, all the Courts of Justice, most of the public schools. They won their great civil war against the Crown. Within a century after Henry's folly, they had established themselves in the place of what had once been the monarchy and central government of England. The impoverished Crown resisted in vain; they killed one embarrassed King—Charles I, and they set up his son, Charles II, as an insufficiently salaried puppet. Since their victory over the Crown, they and the capitalists, who have sprung from their avarice and their philosophy, and largely from their very loins, have been completely masters of England.
Here the reader may say: "What! this large national movement to be interpreted as the work of such minorities? A few thousand squires and merchants backing a few more thousand enthusiasts, changed utterly the mass of England?" Yes; to interpret it otherwise is to read history backwards. It is to think that England then was what England later became. There is no more fatal fault in the reading of history, nor any illusion to which the human mind is more prone. To read the remote past in the light of the recent past; to think the process of the one towards the other "inevitable;" to regard the whole matter as a slow inexorable process, independent of the human will, still suits the materialist pantheism of our time. There is an inherent tendency in all men to this fallacy of reading themselves into the past, and of thinking their own mood a consummation at once excellent and necessary: and most men who write of these things imagine a vaguely Protestant Tudor England growing consciously Protestant in the England of the Stuarts.
That is not history. It is history to put yourself by a combined effort of reading and of imagination into the shoes of Tuesday, as though you did not know what Wednesday was to be, and then to describe what Tuesday was. England did not lose the Faith in 1550-1620 because she was Protestant then. Rather, she is Protestant now because she then lost the Faith.
Put yourself into the shoes of a sixteenth century Englishman in the midst of the Reformation, and what do you perceive? A society wholly Catholic in tradition, lax and careless in Catholic practice; irritated or enlivened here and there by a few furious preachers, or by a few enthusiastic scholars, at once devoted to and in terror of the civil government; intensely national; in all the roots and traditions of its civilization, Roman; impatient of the disproportion of society, and in particular of economic disproportion in the religious aspect of society, because the religious function, by the very definition of Catholicism, by its very Creed, should be the first to redress tyrannies. Upon that Englishman comes first, a mania for his King; next, a violent economic revolution, which, in many parts, can be made to seem an approach to justice; finally, a national appeal of the strongest kind against the encroaching power of Spain.
When the work was done, say by 1620, the communication between England and those parts of the ancient West, which were still furiously resisting the storm, was cut. No spiritual force could move England after the Armada and its effect, save what might arise spontaneously in the many excited men who still believed (they continued to believe it for fifty years) that the whole Church of Christ had gone wrong for centuries; that its original could be restored and that personal revelations were granted them for their guidance.
These visionaries were the Reformers; to these, souls still athirst for spiritual guidance turned. They were a minority even at the end of the sixteenth century, the last years of Elizabeth, but they were a minority full of initiative and of action. With the turn of the century (1600-1620) the last men who could remember Catholic training were very old or dead. The new generation could turn to nothing but the new spirit. For authority it could find nothing definite but a printed book: a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. For teachers, nothing but this minority, the Reformers. That minority, though remaining a minority, leavened and at last controlled the whole nation: by the first third of the seventeenth century Britain was utterly cut off from the unity of Christendom and its new character was sealed. The Catholic Faith was dead.
The governing class remained largely indifferent (as it still is) to religion, yet it remained highly cultured. The populace drifted here, into complete indifference, there, into orgiastic forms of worship. The middle class went over in a solid body to the enemy. The barbarism of the outer Germanies permeated it and transformed it. The closer-reasoned, far more perverted and harder French heresy of Calvin partly deflected the current—and a whole new society was formed and launched. That was the English Reformation.
Its effect upon Europe was stupendous; for, though England was cut off, England was still England. You could not destroy in a Roman province the great traditions of municipality and letters. It was as though a phalanx of trained troops had crossed the frontier in some border war and turned against their former comrades. England lent, and has from that day continuously lent, the strength of a great civilized tradition to forces whose original initiative was directed against European civilization and its tradition. The loss of Britain was the one great wound in the body of the Western world. It is not yet healed.
Yet all this while that other island of the group to the Northwest of Europe, that island which had never been conquered by armed civilization as were the Outer Germanies, but had spontaneously accepted the Faith, presented a contrasting exception. Against the loss of Britain, which had been a Roman province, the Faith, when the smoke of battle cleared off, could discover the astonishing loyalty of Ireland. And over against this exceptional province—Britain—now lost to the Faith, lay an equally exceptional and unique outer part which had never been a Roman province, yet which now remained true to the tradition of Roman men; it balanced the map like a counterweight. The efforts to destroy the Faith in Ireland have exceeded in violence, persistence, and cruelty any persecution in any part or time of the world. They have failed. As I cannot explain why they have failed, so I shall not attempt to explain how and why the Faith in Ireland was saved when the Faith in Britain went under. I do not believe it capable of an historic explanation. It seems to me a phenomenon essentially miraculous in character, not generally attached (as are all historical phenomena) to the general and divine purpose that governs our large political events, but directly and specially attached. It is of great significance; how great, men will be able to see many years hence when another definite battle is joined between the forces of the Church and her opponents. For the Irish race alone of all Europe has maintained a perfect integrity and has kept serene, without internal reactions and without their consequent disturbances, the soul of Europe which is the Catholic Church.
Excerpted from "Europe and the Faith"
by Hilaire Belloc