General History VIII: 1500–1618
For some historians the 16th century is a moment of such deep, multi-faceted crisis in Europe – it witnessed such a complete breakdown of the medieval world – that they have likened it to the Apocalypse. The sixteenth century was a period of profound change which left contemporaries deeply shaken, as seeds sown in the later Middle Ages bore fruit – both destructive, and creative.
The sixteenth century in Europe was, above all, the age of Reformation. Historians are still debating why an ostensibly traditional academic dispute in a minor German university in 1517 ripped medieval Christendom apart – giving princes new opportunities to extend their power over their subjects, inspiring peasants and urban artisans to violent social revolution, launching a wave of religious wars, reconfiguring social and cultural life, inspiring a militant self re-invention by the papacy and Catholic hierarchy, and ultimately dividing Europe into two bitterly polarised confessional camps. This paper offers students the opportunity to explore the Reformation and its effects from many different angles – theological, cultural, and political – in every corner of Europe, from the students of Luther’s Wittenberg, to the convents of Counter Reformation Spain, to the radical Calvinist magnates of Lithuania. Current research on the Reformation tends to focus on its reception, rejection or adaptation by people on the ground.
The sixteenth century was also an age of European superpowers. In the late Middle Ages princes had battled for regional or local hegemony, but in this period the Habsburgs fought for predominance over all Christian Europe, led by the ‘World emperor’, Charles V. New military techniques and hardware were developed, as were new forms of high finance to fund these titanic clashes. As part of this paper, students can delve into the development of all the major polities of Reformation Europe – France, mired in civil and foreign wars; the Low Countries, and their great anti-Habsburg Revolt; the state-building of the popes and Italian princes; the rise of Muscovite autocracy, and the Golden Ages of Habsburg Spain and Jagiellonian Poland-Lithuania. Historians are examining what the power of these new centralising states rested on, how it was articulated, and how it was experienced by subjects.
As Cunningham and Grell would remind us, the sixteenth century was a time of fear – fear of devil-worshipping witches hidden within godly Christian communities; fear of deviant sexual behaviour; fear of the new epidemics sweeping Europe; fear of poverty and famine, in a period of demographic explosion; fear of an all-out Ottoman conquest of Christendom. Some of the most innovative social history and historical anthropology of past decades has taken the sixteenth century as its subject. This was also an age of intellectual ferment, as many of the epic cultural developments of the fifteenth century – humanism, the birth of the printing industry, Italian Renaissance art – grew into maturity. There is a lively scholarship on the intellectual culture of Reformation Europe, on astrologers such as Girolamo Cardano, master printers such as Aldus Manutius and academic superstars like Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Paradoxically, the sixteenth century was not only an age of crisis and questioning, but also an age of expansion. Though trade, conquest and settlement, Spain and Portugal built empires in the Americas, Caribbean, Africa and East Asia. The course gives students the chance to explore how this new global context affected European perceptions and beliefs, and to discover what happened when Catholic missionaries tried to convert the ruling elites of China, Sri Lanka and Japan. From Luther’s protest in 1517 to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, this paper covers a century of transformations, in Europe and beyond.