Enduring efforts to embrace dissenters

Divided by Faith

December 14, 2007

This study of religious toleration has an agenda. Some may find that a drawback, but at least the agenda is clearly signposted throughout: Kaplan seeks to combat what he sees as a Whiggish and secularist myth that we have progressed beyond past societies regimented by religious fanaticism towards a modern individualist freedom. He wants to plead for recognition that a religious world-view is not incompatible with thoughtful respect for religious difference. An accomplished historian of the early modern Low Countries, Kaplan creates a brilliant survey of that most fraught of religious eras, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and ranges with engaging humour and perception across Europe.

The occasional slips over detail do not detract from the overall message that there was a pleasing complexity in human reactions to the deep fissures that opened up in the Western Latin Church after Luther's defiant protest in 1517. There were indeed those who wished to turn the lives of all Europeans into an unending fight between truth and error, good and evil, with as destructive an effect as Mao's unleashing of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese society. One of them, an English Puritan, called toleration "the last and most desperate design of Antichrist to destroy Church and State".

But enough people were prepared to make the situation much more complex and untidy; Kaplan's Reformation Europe becomes a vindication of that reassuring rule that cock-up more than conspiracy determines the shape of human history. There are many resonances here with Alexandra Walsham's recent splendid study of toleration in early modern England, but Kaplan takes his story as far as Poland and the marches of the Ottoman Empire, and introduces us to Italian ghettoes as well as converted Spanish mosques.

The vital factor in the 16th and 17th centuries was that neither side, Catholic or Protestant, decisively won the war against the Antichrist. In fact, there was no one Protestantism, so that Reformed Protestants and Lutheran Protestants often hated each other just as much as both of them hated Catholics, and they could be wonderfully petty to each other. The vital principle behind so much of Kaplan's story was formalised when the Peace of Augsburg ended one round of destructive religious warfare in 1555: each ruler could decide his people's official religious practice ( cuius regio, eius religio ). Because so many political units in central Europe were very small, the local authority might turn a blind eye to its religious dissenters slipping over the border for worship. This practice became formalised in various places: the Catholic Habsburgs became very fed up with thousands of Viennese Protestants ostentatiously trooping out of the city Sunday after Sunday to worship in a privileged Protestant castle, but it was a long time before they managed to summon up the legal and military resources to stop it happening.

In other places, a complex sequence of political manoeuvrings led to church buildings being shared, sometimes even without putting up walls to divide them. Kaplan devotes an enjoyable chapter to describing the Clochemerle -like situation in the Swabian town of Biberach, where Lutherans and Catholics early on decided that they both loved their splendid parish church of St Martin too much to yield it wholly to the other side, and neither had the resources to throw the other out. So they devised a complex rota of hours exclusively devoted to one variety of worship or the other, and they decorated the choir in Catholic style and the nave in Lutheran style (admittedly, there were some rows about some of the decorative schemes). A notable feature of the interior design was a large clock with two faces, one into nave, one into choir, just to keep everyone from running over time and having the wrong side of the religious divide hogging worship. From 1548 to the present day almost without interruption, the good folk of Biberach have continued this arrangement with no more than the usual measure of human ill-will.

I found myself applauding Kaplan's dissection of early modern Europe almost until his last sentence, which looks back at the societies he has just described: "as limited, tension-ridden, and discriminatory as their accommodations and arrangements were, they can open our eyes to the unique qualities of the toleration we practice today and the possibility of other options." Well, I'm a gay man who values and celebrates the unique quality of the toleration we practise today, and I'm pretty suspicious of any of the alternatives religious societies are likely to have on offer. Religions may have learnt the hard way to tolerate each other, but they have yet to show that they can spread that tolerance more widely. The great monotheisms have an abysmal record of unthinking and brutal oppression in regard to sexual difference, and they are (to say the least) on probation about whether they can do any better. But I'm grateful to Kaplan for hinting to them that they might be prepared to try.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church, Oxford University. He is currently writing a general history of Christianity for Penguin and developing a documentary series on the history of Christianity for the BBC.

Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe

Author - Benjamin J. Kaplan
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 432
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780674024304

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.