A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE sixteenth century was a period of relatively rapid and of formally revolutionary change. It may be compared in that respect with two other great periods of European history and with them only: the twelfth century and the nineteenth. It is mere truism to say that the great changes that took place were results of a long process. As in other such cases, their suddenness and their revolutionary quality were in part illusory. Essential psychological change preceded the formal revolution.

So long ago as the commencement of the fourteenth century it had been pointed out that the Empire of Christendom was a useless fiction. It had been declared that the Church and the Papacy constituted the main obstacle to the development of efficient secular government. It had been asserted that the clergy as such had no right to speak in the name of the Church. On these texts the thinkers of the fourteenth century had enlarged considerably. All through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the clergy and the Pope had been suffering loss of prestige and of moral authority. The actual constitution of the Church Catholic was increasingly undermined by heresy, by scepticism and by covetous jealousy of its property and its jurisdictions. It was increasingly menaced by the growth of nationalist sentiment and organization, at least in France and in England. A crash became inevitable, and in the sixteenth century the Church was torn to pieces. What we call the Reformation was, in one aspect, the definitive triumph of secular authority in a struggle with the Church already centuries old. In one country after another, the secular government established its local control of the Church, absorbing in the process much, at least, of its property and jurisdiction. In city after city, from Stralsund to Geneva, the Reformation appears as the last act of an age-long conflict between city and Bishop. Even in Catholic countries the same thing happened in some degree. When Francis I secured from the Pope in 1516 the right to appoint his own bishops and by the ordinance of Villers Coterêts in 1537, curtailed ecclesiastical jurisdiction, he was doing, so far as he could, what Henry VIII did in England. Ferdinand of Austria, like the Protestant Princes of North Germany, dissolved

-xiii-

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