VI.1 The Reformation and the universities: continuity or change?

VI.1 The Reformation and the universities: continuity or change?

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is the most damaging rupture in the ecclesiastical history of Europe between Great Schism of 1054 (which separated the Roman Catholic from the Eastern Orthodox Churches) and the present day. Of all the great intellectual developments of our period, it is, unquestionably, the one which most directly affected the lives of ordinary people. But did the Reformation represent an equally major rupture in the intellectual history of western and central Europe? Did it transform the manner in which educated Europeans transacted their intellectual business? Or was it comfortably accommodated, for the most part, within the established structures of academic learning?

The division of Europe into deeply entrenched and bitterly antagonistic theological camps massively intensified intellectual debate. The point is not merely that Catholics fought with Protestants. Within the Protestant camp, Lutherans fought just as vigorously with Calvinist. Within the Lutheran camp, theological conflict raged between the death of Luther himself in 1546 and the Concordial movement of the 1570s. Within the Calvinist camp, Arminians and Laudians battled with contra-Remonstrants and Puritans, to say nothing of radical groups such as Anabaptists and Socinians (who denied infant baptism and the Trinity, respectively). These debates quickly spread from theology to include areas of secular scholarship and philosophy, including metaphysics and natural philosophy, ecclesiastical history, political theory, and even cosmology.

This intensification of debate profoundly altered the tempo of intellectual exchange within Europe; yet viewing this period from the institutional framework of the university suggests continuity more than transformation. Only temporarily did the Reformation threaten to overthrow central features of the university: its longer term impact was to multiply the number of universities and students above all in the German heartland of the Reformation itself. Moreover, once fortified my the new armoury of humanist scholarship, scholastic culture proved perfectly adapted to the extreme disputatiousness of the confessional era. 

Image. 'De zielenvisserij (Fishing for Souls)', 1614; painting by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne (c. 1589-1662). Oil on oak; H 98.5 cm (38.7 in); W 187.8 cm (73.9 in). An allegory of the contest between the competing religious denominations during the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621) between the Dutch Republic and Spain, the painting also symbolises the confessional competition unleashed by the Reformation more generally. Sources: Wikimedia (public domain).

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)