Renaissance and Reformation

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Student Question

Considering various factors, was the Reformation an accident of history?

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Thinking counterfactually about history is always more an exercise in science fiction or fantasy than something realistic, mainly because the variables aren't independent. For example, you can't really adjust an economy independent of social and political structures as they are all interdependent.

That being said,  I think that the Reformation was not entirely an accident, but that the factors that led to the Reformation could equally well have led directly to the Counter-Reformation or other forms of reform. The factors leading to the Reformation were not simply accidents but rather resulted from many underlying causes. 

The most important political and economic factors, especially in the English Reformation, were the tensions between the role of the papacy in reinforcing the authority and legitimacy of rulers and the desires of rulers to control the vast wealth of the Church within their lands. The growth of nationalism added to this a stance that the papacy was a foreign power, controlling the Papal States and allied to various different national powers, and thus shifting alliances within Europe tended to make some rulers wish for a church not subjected to the control of a potentially hostile foreign power.

On a religious level, there had been many late medieval movements which rebelled against the clericalism of the church and which saw Roman Catholicism as corrupt and worldly. Movements such as the  Lollards and the Albigensians (or Cathars) were agitating for a more pure church before Luther.

Finally, the rise of the middle classes created a strong alternative to the alliance of the aristocracy with the church and a desire for a religion less mediated by clerical authority. As the educated middle classes began to read the Bible for themselves, they became less willing to subject themselves to a church hierarchy they saw as exclusionary and authoritarian. 

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