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Change & Continuity over Time of Religion in Europe from the 1500-1900 Essay

The period between 1500 to 1900 also refers to the time period from the Middle Ages to the modern world. The period witnessed significant strides in state building in England, France, and Spain, where growing bureaucracies levied taxes to finance large-scale warfare and territorial expansion. At the same time encroachment on the longstanding powers of the nobility caused feudal reaction, while the breach with tradition, particularly by creating new taxes in an era plagued by war, famine, and disease, caused peasants to revolt.

A number of historical trends emerged to give the period clear definition: the fragmentation of Christianity and growing secularism; pronounced demographic and economic fluctuation; the development of the European state system; and the emergence of a global, Europe-centered system of production and trade. In the second decade of the sixteenth century, the Christian church experienced the first in a series of religious divisions along geographic lines.

The sequence of splits, beginning in the Holy Roman Empire and spreading to the whole of Europe by the end of the century, transformed the relationship of the reformed churches with state, society, and the people. Christianity also spread to the indigenous people of the Americas and Asia. There was a strong desire for religious unity, marked by mandatory conversions of Moors and Jews to Catholicism in Spain and an enthusiastic missionary effort both in Europe and abroad.

At the same time in nearly every area of Europe religious conflict and calls for a redistribution of power became virtually unavoidable, causing crisis in authority at state and local levels. Religious evangelism encouraged stronger spiritual education of young people. During the same time period, the advances of scientific information provided new, conflicting methods of learning.

For this reason, children of educated classes were brought up in a world of competing models of knowledge advanced by churchmen and scientists, while the children of ordinary people were exposed to combinations of evangelical claims, folk wisdom, and the overpowering and repressive Reformation churches. Protestant and Catholic teachers tried to clarify and define the boundaries of official doctrine. Their interactions with the commoners caused serious tensions. Popular beliefs were judged as pagan. Evangelists tried to impose religious uniformity and eliminate groups or individuals who could not be brought into the mainstream Christianity.

In particular, the office of the Holy Inquisition denied the lay people’s claims to spiritual powers in an effort to give all powers to the clergy. It was an attempt to take away the spiritual dimension of the lay people, medicine and science. The religious campaign to denounce magic and witchcraft helped prepare the ground for the late-seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century scientific claims that the cosmos was mechanized. In the modern age, science would undermine magical beliefs and reduce the spiritual influence of the clergy.

The religious Reformation, together with the critical and undemocratic nature of Renaissance humanism, shattered the unity of intellectual thought, developments that were vital to the advancement of science. The discovery of new worlds and people and that the earth was round; the invention of movable type; the development of firearms and of a lens that improved the visibility of the stars and planets; improved mechanical clocks; and the development of shipbuilding and navigation opened up new intellectual perspectives and methods of discovery that relied increasingly on rational thinking rather than religion.

Scientists made new claims to authority and objectivity, and began explaining the world in mechanical terms. Separating the observable world from the spiritual sphere represented a fundamental shift in thought. To see the world operating on basic principles discoverable by reason created hope that humans could control their environment, a change in attitude that helped pave the way for nineteenth-century industrialization.


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