Information on the Middle Ages: Reformation and Revolt

ALTHOUGH the Church, until the sixteenth century, had successfully suppressed all attempts at spiritual independence, yet the broadening of men's minds that began with the crusades and received a vigorous impetus from the Renaissance made its mark even in the fifteenth century upon ecclesiastical affairs.

Three main facts of the moral order are presented during this period: the ineffectual attempts of the councils of Constance and Basel to reform the Church from within; the ineffectual attempts at reform from without, the most notable of which was that of Huss in Bohemia; and the intellectual revolution that accompanied the Renaissance. The way was thus prepared for the event that was inaugurated when Luther burnt the pope's bull at Wittenberg in 1520.

The Reformation was in reality a revolt of the human spirit against absolute power in spiritual affairs. The minds of men were, during the sixteenth century, in energetic movement, consumed by desire for progress; the Church had become inert and stationary, yet it maintained all its pretentions and external importance. The Church, indeed, was less tyrannical than it had formerly been, and not more corrupt. But it had not advanced; it had lost touch with human thought.

The Reformation, in all the lands that it reached, in all the lands where it played a great part, whether as conqueror or as conquered, resulted in general, constant and immense progress in liberty and activity of thought, and tended towards the emancipation of the human spirit. It did not attack temporal absolutism; but the collision between temporal absolutism and spiritual freedom was bound to come.


THEIR first shock was in England, for England was a country of exceptional conditions, both civil and religious. The Reformation there had, in part, been the work of the kings themselves, and was incomplete; the reformers remained militant, and denounced the bishops, as they had formerly denounced the pope. Moreover, the aspirations after civil liberty that were stirred up by the emancipation of thought had means of action in the old institutions of the country--the charter, the parliament, the laws, the precedents. Similar aspirations in Continental countries had no such means of action and led to nothing.

Two national desires coincided in England at this epoch--the desire for religious revolution and liberty, and the desire for political liberty and the overthrow of despotism. The two sets of reformers joined forces. For the political party, civil freedom was the end; for the religious party, it was only a means; but through-out the conflict the political party took the lead and the others followed. It was not until 1688 that the reformers finally attained their aim in the abolition of absolute power, spiritual and temporal; and the accession of William of Orange in that year brought England into the great struggle that was raging on the Continent between the principle of despotism and the principle of freedom.

England differed from other European countries in that the essential diversity of European civilization was more pronounced there than anywhere else. Elsewhere, one element prevailed over the others until it was overthrown; in England, even if one element was dominant, the others were strong and important. Elizabeth had to be far more wary with her nobles and commons than Louis XIV with his. For this reason Europe lagged behind England in civil freedom. But there was another reason--the influence of France.

During the seventeenth century, the French government was the strongest in Europe, and it was a despotic government. During the eighteenth century French thought was the most active and potent in Europe, and it was unboundedly free thought. Louis XIV did not, as is sometimes supposed, adopt as his principle the propagation of absolutism; his aim was the strength and greatness of France, and to this end he fought and planned--just as William of Orange fought and planned, not against despotism, but against France.

Yet, after the death of Louis XIV the government immediately degenerated. This was inevitable. No system of government can be maintained without institutions, and a despot dislikes institutions. The rule of Louis XIV was great, powerful and brilliant, but it had no roots. The decrepit remains of it were, in the eighteenth century, brought face to face with a society in which free examination and free speculation had been carried to lengths never imagined before. Freedom of thought once again came to grips with absolute power.

The gravest and most instructive fact revealed to us by this grand spectacle of civilization is the danger, the insurmountable evil, of absolute power in any form--whether in the form of a despot like Louis XIV, or in that of the untrammelled human spirit that prevailed at the Revolution. Each human power has in itself a natural vice, a principle of weakness to which there has to be assigned a limit. It is only by general liberty of all rights, interests and opinions that each power can be restrained within its legitimate bounds, and intellectual freedom enabled to exist genuinely and to the advantage of the whole community.

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