The Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion: Analysis, causes and consequences

The Protestant Reformation was undoubtedly one of the most important and influential phenomena of the Renaissance period and, far from representing only a religious phenomenon, it had very profound and incisive repercussions also on a social, political and geopolitical level. For this reason it is appropriate to clarify the nature and causes of this historical event so that its real historical significance can be fully understood.


First of all, we must consider that the Protestant Reformation was one of the profound changes caused by the political and social rise of the bourgeoisie which, starting from the 11th century AD. it profoundly affected the economic, political and social structure that had taken shape in the early Middle Ages. And also the way of thinking and living life. It must be understood that medieval man lived in a conceptual dimension deeply permeated by the thought of the post-mortem and the last judgement. He therefore lived his earthly life as a function of his afterlife. Depending on the beyond. Which limited him in his actions and in enjoying his life. And he therefore consumed his life in such a state of self-denial, typical of all confessional societies and states. This is a fundamental aspect to understand the true meaning of the Protestant Reformation. Which wasn’t just religious. It represents, more than anything else, a new approach to life. Renaissance man, in fact, is now conceptually very different from medieval man (even if the same social, political and geopolitical evolution is not found in all regions of Europe). His vision of the world and of life is no longer completely permeated by the obsession with life after death and by divine judgment on the human soul. Renaissance man is a man full of himself: Who produces and fully understands the potential of his own abilities. This awareness is much stronger among the bourgeoisie and in the urban reality (where the impact of the “advent” of the new social class, mostly dedicated to commerce, was stronger). This new social reality matures, together with monetary wealth (movable wealth which was contrasted with real estate wealth – based on the possession of land and landed property), also a new vision of life and the world. A much freer and more open vision than that of medieval man. And also permeated by a substantial hedonism, such a conception of existence refuses to postpone everything “until later”, to the post-mortem and let earthly life be exhausted in prayer and in the fear of God. The Renaissance man can and wants to live life and enjoy its material joys. Without too many obsessions about how he will be judged by God and what his life will be like after death (assuming that it exists, because such a conception of human existence also implies a certain atheism). The rigid dogma of the Catholic religion did not lend itself to such a vision of life. And in fact the Church of Rome decisively opposed the Protestant Reformation and all the movements that tried to make the rigidity of the cult and dogmas of Catholicism more elastic. The reason for the reform was only partially linked to the practice of indulgences (the redemption from sins, therefore, through the payment of a sum of money). The reasons transcended these simoniacal practices and essentially concerned greater religious freedom. They are therefore linked to the desire for a cult that is more in line with the new vision of life, hedonistic and enjoyable, which established itself in the Renaissance period (and, in the more advanced social contexts, already from the late Middle Ages). And the Lutheran reform (in all the variants into which it was then divided) fully satisfied these needs. Justification by faith alone is the emblem of a less oppressive and more elastic religion. Which allowed man not to necessarily have to resort to the church and the clergy to redeem himself from his sins. And from the “works” (which more often than not involved the payment of a sum of money) that the latter demanded. Even the freedom to marry that was given to Protestant priests falls within this vision of religion. A religion that is no longer just self-denial but which allows us to enjoy the joys of life and to realize man in this world even before the other. From this we can deduce how the Protestant Reformation essentially represented a readjustment of the rigid Catholic cult to the changed social and economic conditions found in the Renaissance period. But the impact of the Protestant Reformation was not only great in the religious sphere (and therefore greatly transcended the confessional consequences due to the schism within the Catholic Church). It also had very important political and geopolitical consequences. Which became dramatically evident. immediately after the posting of the famous 95 theses on the Wittenberg church.


A few years after 1517, Europe was pervaded by devastating social uprisings and wars (the so-called religious wars) which caused millions of deaths. The interests of the promoters of the reform often coincided with needs of freedom to which the reform gave great impetus. In this context, first the great agrarian rebellion in the Holy Roman Empire developed and then the great rebellion of the small feudal lords (in an attempt to redefine the social and political structures especially in the context of Central Europe which was still in full feudalism). At the same time, on a geopolitical level, it gave the German princes (who en masse adhered to Protestantism) the opportunity to oppose the emperor (Charles V). Who did everything to repress the new heresy. But without success. A long war broke out in France which tore the social fabric of the country, now completely divided between the Catholic faction (which was mainly supported by the nobles) and the Huguenot faction (whose social base was predominantly bourgeois). During the 16th century, Europe witnessed a real slaughter and power clashes that had to redefine balances that no longer responded to the economic and social dynamics of the time. Not only for the new concept of existence that matured as a consequence of the economic and social development of the period but also for the changes that the rise and affirmation, political and social, of the bourgeoisie entailed within the various states of the Renaissance Europe. With the progressive dismantling of the feudal system and the centralization of power by the crown. The Protestant reform and the consequent wars of religion must therefore be interpreted as a further “dent” in the power structure that took shape in the early Middle Ages, characterized by the Curtense economy and vassalage relationships (and therefore by a substantial political-administrative decentralization if not from a real anarchy caused by the total insurrection of the vassals towards the King). Historically, such processes are always very painful. And they generally leave behind a truly impressive trail of blood. The geopolitical interests of the most important states of the time were associated with these dynamics. And they gave the opportunity to fail the Spanish hegemonic attempt (which began with Charles V and continued with Philip II) which took shape during the 16th century (and which ended, definitively, with the Thirty Years’ War which also represents the last war appendage of the wars of religion). The defeat of Spain allowed the rise of England in the world geopolitical panorama. Ascent with specific peculiarities. Which made it a very different power from the continental ones (France and Spain first and foremost). With more commercial than territorial interests (and therefore more marine than terrestrial). And with a political and social evolution without equal in the world ( Which allowed the perfidious Albion to definitively undermine the medieval power system already at the end of the 17th century (on the occasion of the second bourgeois revolution of 1688-89). With which the bourgeoisie replaced the nobility, definitively, at the helm of the nation. In summary, the religious wars were entirely functional to England’s rise to world power. Given that they weakened and bogged down the resources, human and material, of her most fearsome antagonists: Spain and France. The first ended in the attempt to establish itself as a hegemonic power in Europe during the 16th century. The second in an internal religious conflict that paralyzed international politics.

From what has been written so far it is clear that the Protestant Reformation was a phenomenon of enormous historical importance. It must be interpreted as one of the most important dents in the system of power that emerged in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (feudal system). The requests for religious reform gave rise to political and geopolitical dynamics that were intertwined with the more specifically religious ones. And which led to almost unprecedented social and political upheavals. All this was caused by epochal changes in the Renaissance man’s conception of existence (especially in the most socially and economically advanced geographical contexts). In fact, the phenomenon is clearly of bourgeois origin and cannot be correctly interpreted if it is not related to the social and political rise of this new social class. Which, although associated with the third estate, was completely different from it in terms of activity (the bourgeoisie was mostly dedicated to trade and therefore to profitable free activity while the peasants were merely serfs without any legal right) and wealth produced. It was responsible for the establishment of the first large capitals of the modern era as well as the birth of modern financial capitalism. And it was impossible that the rise and affirmation of this new social class did not also entail instances of change in a world still permeated by a conception of existence (the medieval one) which had no interest in earthly life and which conceived the latter only as a function of the eternal one. And which was no longer responsive to the hedonistic and materialistic needs that economic and social progress now imposed on the entire world.


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