Religious warfare deeply marked Europe’s experience of early modernity. The German Peasants’ War (1524-5), Schmalkaldic Wars (1546-7, 1552-5), French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), and Thirty Years War (1618-1648) are only the best known of the many sixteenth and seventeenth-century wars in which religious rights and duties were central points of conflict.
The debates of intellectuals both Catholic and Protestant have much to tell us about the nature of this early modern religious warfare. Conducted inside Europe’s universities in the Latin language, these debates have previously been dismissed as irrelevant to the real world, but those universities were wealthy and prestigious institutions, very often intimately connected to government, and Latin served as Europe’s international learned language, so that scholars in Edinburgh, Heidelburg, and Salamanca could participate in the same conversation across national and confessional boundaries. Historians can gain profound insight into the dynamics of religious conflict from the study of the weighty Latin volumes that preserve these international debates and conversations.
It is especially important that the small numbers of radical Catholics and Protestants who favoured imposing their own version of Christianity on others by force were accused by moderates (no less religiously sincere) within their own communities of promoting wars incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. Religious faith, the moderates on all sides insisted, was a supernatural thing, a gift of God, rather than a natural thing, a creation of rational humans, and thus could not be imposed by force. Arguments for religious war in the sense of evangelisation by force were thus resisted by most of the educated European elite. The popular stereotype of a European continent dominated by hordes of religious fanatics flinging themselves mindlessly at each other is thus entirely misconceived. And even political historians examining the phenomenon of early modern religious war sometimes impose the modern categories of sacred (which they associate with the irrational) and secular (which they posit must be drained of the divine) on the past, mistakenly assuming that those who opposed evangelisation by force were somehow more secular than their opponents and composing a false history of secularisation on Europe’s early modernity.
Between March 2016 to February 2021, the project team analysed, translated, edited, and published these scholastic debates between religious militants and religious moderates on the role of force in religious life in order to inform and re-shape arguments among political historians on the nature of European religious warfare. We have attended both to those Franciscans who built on the theology of John Duns Scotus, and also to the Calvinist intellectual tradition; both groups were accused by their contemporaries of bring the supernatural too far into human life and endangering the natural sphere. Our aim was to compose a new trans-confessional history of Christian militancy in early modern Europe.
War and the Supernatural in Early Modern Europe (acronym, War and Supernature) was a European Research Council Starting Grant 2015 – 677490. It began in March 2016 and it concluded in February 2021.