In the Fourteenth Centurythe bubonic plague left roughly one third of Europe’s population dead. Theplague brought to light the proximity of death and the fragility of life, whichleft the remaining two thirds of the population with countless questions aboutlife, death, and, perhaps most importantly, life after death. Religion was used to answer these questions.
Yet by 1775 in France, later in Europe’s early modern period, people wereturning to political and social revolution in response to similar, albeit lessserious, worries about death—this time stemming from a lack of food due tofailed harvests and ridiculously high flour prices. One of the many reasons forthis different response was the change in the role religion played in the earlymodern European’s lives. Although it is fair on a simplistic level to claimthat religion played a less significant role in people’s lives during the”late” early modern period comparedto the “early” early modern period, this hardly tells the whole story. It ismore accurate to suggest that although religion continued to play an importantrole in people’s personal lives many factors—such as religious reformation,scientific revolution, and increased political structure—made religion anobsolete way to organize society by the end of the early modern period.In the beginningof the early modern period religion played an all-encompassing role. Not only werereligious leaders there to answer any and all questions one had about thenatural world, but they also held secular power and even acted as judges. The organizationalinfluence religious figures possessed is well exemplified in a particular scenefrom Gene Brucker’s Giovani and Lusanna; Archbishop Antonious calls forthe pedasta (the secular investigators) to cease their investigation out offear that it will negatively affect the accuracy of his court case threatening,”You are hereby warned that unless you desistyour investigation immediatelyyou will incur the penalty of excommunication”(Brucker 45). The archbishop hadasked the pedesta to stop their investigation twice before threatening to kickthem out of the church but only after he threatens excommunication do they obeyhis request.
Their responsehighlights the social implications of excommunication. The church was thecenter of life in early modern Europe, and being excommunicated not onlyaffected your connection with god (interestingly enough, the notion of apersonal connection with god as we understand it didn’t exist yet despitereligion’s prominence), but was frowned upon by the entire community. Religion wasn’t a private matter, but acommunal one. Yet despite thesubstantial role the Roman Catholic Church played in societal organization onceLuther proposed alternative religious viewpoint it became clear that peopledidn’t support the secular-administrative role the church had taken on.
Despite the fact that many were fed up withthe Church’s corruption, it wasn’t until Luther that they had another viablereligious option. People didn’t become Protestants purely because of thechanges Luther made to the Christian faith, but rather because they supportedLuther’s attack on the “Romanist’s” power, especially his claim that the churchdidn’t have the right to put “spiritual power over the temporal”(Luther 94). Not only did Luther’s ideas lead to a declinein the church’s power—to a decline in the organizational role the churchplayed—but to a spreading of the notion that every body can have a personalconnection with god: “since all Christians were of the spiritual estate theycould all connect to god” (Luther 95). The latter notion would form thefoundation for how people a couple hundred years later would view religion.This new personalizedview of religion would also be substantially influenced by the scientificdiscoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Despite the fact that Copernicus attempted touse his findings—that the sun was actually the center of the universe—tojustify god’s creation of the universe his ideas were still rejected by thechurch.
This undoubtedly proved to those familiar with Copernicus’ work thatchurch feared new knowledge could take away their monopoly on explanations ofthe unknown. Luckily for the church, not many were familiar with Copernicus’swork. A much larger audience, however, read Galileo’s The Starry Night;the book spoke about imperfections exhibited by both the moon and the sun andtherefore dismantled the churches idea that the sun, moon and planets wereperfect heavenly spheres.
The book turnedGalileo into somewhat of an early modern European celebrity, which ensured thatwhen the church arrested him for heresy after the publication of another of hisbooks some years later, people took note. They saw that publically having viewsthat differed from the church in areas where the church still held secularpower (at the time the Roman Catholic church held little power in the Germaniclands and England, for example) wasn’t completely safe and were pushed to keeptheir views, opinions and beliefs more private because of this lack of safety.It was thereforenecessary for the emerging political powers of the time to protect various religious view points.This took longer in some areas than it did in others.
Namely areas where the Church had beenhistorically less influential, England for example, had political structuresemerge sooner and ergo began to protect people’s religious rights earlier. Incountries like France though, where the Church wouldn’t lose power until therevolution, it took much longer for them to listen to enlightened men such asVoltaire who’d claim: “it is not a question of giving immense privileges tominority religions but of allowing a peaceful people to live and moderatingthe laws once, but no longer, necessary”(Hunt 39). Eventually though, however, all the majorpowers in Europe did grant equal political rights to religious groups.The reason that they could do this and not worryabout their social structure collapsing was because the role of religion hadchanged so significantly. Luther and other religious reformers showed that thesecular power the church held didn’t need to be adhered to because since “allChristians were of the spiritual estate” and therefore didn’t need to rely onthe church’s “spiritual power” to maintain a connection with god(Luther94, 95).This allowed for people to have their own ideas about god and religion, butbecause of wide spread inquisitions—of which Galileo fell victim—people wereunsure about if they should practice religion publically.
Luckily, the emergingpolitical structures passed the adequate laws to allow for freedom of religion,because by this stage sufficient government was in place to ensure that religion was no longer needed to organizesociety. Yet despite the fact that itwas “unneeded” religion was still was important to people and continued to playa role in there personal lives, as it does till this day. In fact by the end of the early modern periodthe role religion played in people’s life was very similar to the role it playstoday, which is why a paper like this, which re-examines how religion came toplay this role has any relevance whatsoever. It is important for us torecognize how religion came to take on this role it currently has if we are tounderstand that role, and to ensure that the we don’t allow some of thehistoric ills of religion to repeat themselvesin modernity.