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Useful Notes / The Protestant Reformation

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Martin Luther nailing it since Jesus.
Luther Hammers His 95 Theses To The Door
by Ferdinand Pauwels,
oil on canvas, 1872

Catholic Church: Hey Christians! Do you sin? Now you can buy your way out of hell!
Martin Luther: That's bullshit! This whole thing is bullshit. That's a scam! Fuck the church! Here's 95 reasons why!
bill wurtz: said martin luther in his new book, which might have accidentally started the protestant reformation.
[shows map of Europe; northern half says "fuck the church"; southern half says "no, the church is ok"]
— Bill Wurtz summarizing the Protestant Reformation, history of the entire world, i guess

The Protestant Reformation was a significant event in the history of Christianity where in the 16th century, the church split into the Catholic church and the Protestant sects.

The story goes that on All Hallows' Eve of 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of parchment on the doors at the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. That parchment was named the "95 Theses", condemning the practice of the indulgences, a way of paying the church to absolve one's sins. That stunt, at best, would have looked insignificant and a bit of an annoyance at the onlookers' perspective, as nailing parchment on doors was common at the time, but this particular parchment kickstarted the events to come.


By Luther's time, the Catholic Church had fallen into decay, considered by many to be a Corrupt Church. In addition to the offering of indulgences, illegitimate children and misuse of church property by priests were widespread, as exemplified by Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), who openly used his illegitimate children for political gain and had a number of enemies murdered.

There had been a handful of attempts to reform the church prior to Luther, such as St. Catherine of Siena, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus. Their efforts and success varied; Jan Hus was even burnt at the stake for his calls to reform. Compared to them, Luther had one advantage: the printing press. And with this incredible machine that had produced copies of the Gutenberg Bible, his prints of reform and his vernacular translation of the Bible were easily spread throughout Europe.


With the Edict of Worms (1521), Luther's teachings were banned in the Holy Roman Empire, but they continued to spread throughout Europe regardless. In 1530, Luther and his companion Philip Melanchthon published the Augsburg Confession, in which they defined in 28 articles what a Protestant believed in and what they wanted to change in the church. This confession was adopted by breakaway state churches of the principalities of Saxony and Lubeck, and soon were widely adopted in most of modern-day Germany, Prussia and Scandinavia. Leading to what we call today the "Lutheran Church".

However, Luther wasn't the only one. He inspired a number of other theologians to preach against the Catholic Church. Starting with Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, through the Anabaptists (a broad movement which include the modern-day Hutterites, Mennonites and the Amish), John Calvin in Switzerland, John Knox in Scotland and later Jacobus Arminius in the Netherlands. Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and Arminus are part of what is called the "Reformed" traditionnote . They differed from Lutherans not only in theology, but also in the purpose of the Reformation: Luther wanted to reform the Catholic Church from inside-out, while the Reformed wanted to "return" to the primitive church, breaking away and organizing themselves into independent churches — which would eventually be a bit of a moot point since the Catholic church did their own "reformation" (see below) and the Lutheran churches are still separated to this day.

Of course, the different reformers couldn't all agree with each other. Luther and Zwingli butted heads regarding the Communion, as Luther believed in the "Real Presence of Christ" in the Eucharist while Zwingli believed that it was mostly symbolic. Meanwhile the Anabaptists belived Zwingli and Luther weren't radical enough and instituted adult-only baptism, even "rebaptism" (baptizing again even if you were baptized as an infant), and preached that the faithful should live in total pacifism, and also live separate from society to be truly pious. The Augsburg Confession explicitly condemned them and the Anabaptists would be persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants alike. The Calvinists and Lutherans never became hostile to that point, but there's a significant difference in both theologies and in worship culture: Lutheran churches will often have stained glass, paintings and crucifixes (as Luther wasn't iconoclastic) while their Calvinist counterparts are consistently plain, austere and devoid of images.

In contrast, Italy, France, and Spain remained staunchly Catholic, though a highly persecuted Protestant minority in France, the Huguenots, sparked considerable conflict. Although in an emblematic case of Realpolitik, France would later join the Protestant side during the Thirty Years' War to oppose the Hapsburgs.

Britain confused the matter further when English King Henry VIII declared himself head of the new Church of England, dissolving the monasteries, colonizing Catholic Ireland, and divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn in hopes for a male heir note . Scotland would convert to Protestantism through the preachings of John Knox, and would influence king James VI and I throughout his whole reign(s), such as the translation of the Bible in English, named in his honor. The reigns of Henry VIII and his children, and James VI and his children would lead to a century and a half of conflict over whether the new Church was Catholic or Protestant.

Luther's challenge shook the church to its core, and it embarked on a Counter Reformation (sometimes called the Catholic Reformation) that altered how it operated. The Council of Trent clarified Catholic theology, curbed the abuses of indulgences note , and the church also improved training for priests and created new religious orders, such as the Society of Jesus (often vilified by Protestant writers, thus the Evil Jesuit trope).

The Protestant Reformation ignited a century of religious conflict, as countries used religion as an excuse to perpetuate existing rivalries, and Protestant minorities rose up against their Catholic rulers. The Protestant Dutch fought for 80 years against their deeply Catholic Spanish rulers, France was embroiled in a bloody civil war, and many localized religious conflicts within the Holy Roman Empire eventually enveloped all of Continental Europe in a conflict from 1618-1648. The British Isles largely escaped the brunt of it, but were embroiled in their own conflicts that culminated in the English Civil War (1640s-1660s).

While they actually originated before Luther's theses, The Spanish Inquisition quickly switched from ferreting out secret Jews and Muslims, to ferreting out Protestant heresy in Spain. They are often credited with keeping Spain Catholic during this time.

The Protestant Reformation indirectly fueled the contemporaneous Age of Exploration. Spain sought to conquer the New World in order to gain more souls for the Church, while their rival England sought to counter them. English Protestants fled persecution to North America, leading to the establishment of The Thirteen American Colonies and later The United States.

For extra irony, Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation, is nowadays a secular city, due to the influence of state atheism back when the city was under communist East Germany during the Cold War. Nevertheless, there are still a handful of Lutherans in the city that keep the Reformation flame burning.

See Christianity to get a better idea of what exactly these guys were fighting about.

The Cavalier Years overlaps with the latter half of the time period, and religious warfare is often a background feature in the swashbuckling plots of this setting.

The general timeline of the Reformation started with the posting of Luther's "95 Theses" in 1517 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648; Britain may extend it with the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the Jacobite rebellions until 1745. Meanwhile, for Czechs it usually begins a century earlier than the rest of Europe, with the death of Jan Hus in 1415 (if not earlier, with his preaching), and may end either in 1627-28 when Catholicism was proclaimed the only religion in the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, or even later than in Britain with the Toleration Patent of Josef II in 1781 which marked the end of post-Thirty Year War Counter Reformation in the empire.note 

Tropes applied in fiction:

  • Actual Pacifist: The Anabaptists believed in pacifism and nonresistance to a fault, that most were persecuted out of Europe, as most live in North America and Africa in modern times.
    • The Czech Unity of Brethren (one of the Czech Protestant sects pre-dating Luther) were also pacifists, although some of their members later slipped from that position in the mess that started the Thirty Year War.
  • Boring, but Practical: Reformed churches, as they were iconoclasts and favored plain and simple churches devoid of images or art.
  • Corrupt Church: The Catholic Church is often portrayed as such in this period with the abuse of indulgences and petty political squabbles of displaced nobles who often unwillingly took the cloth.
  • Church Militant:
    • The Batenburgers, also known as Zwaardgeesten (sword-minded), were a radical violent Anabaptist sect which believed everything was God's property so it was fair to loot and steal other people's property, and as chosen of God, they could kill infidels with impunity. A notable contrast with the Actual Pacifist position of the other Anabaptists.
  • Church Police: The Spanish Inquisition is infamously portrayed as such, hunting down religious dissidents and curbing anything that is against the church's teachings.
  • Evil Jesuit: Partial Trope Codifier. The Society of Jesus was formed by the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, with the objective of travelling to Protestant-occupied regions and engage in what essentially amounted to clandestine missionary work: supporting (often secret) worship, teaching doctrine, and ingratiating themselves with local ministers in order to encourage them to convert, or at least be lenient towards Catholics. This is basically how modern-day intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, operate, making the Jesuits also the Catholic Church's unofficial proto-spy agency. So predictably, the Jesuits got demonized by Protestants as dangerous foreign subversives.
  • The Heretic:
    • Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic after the Diet of Worms, his books were to be burned and he was declared an outlaw to be captured, and also allowed anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence. He was saved by Prince Frederick III, which hid him at Wartburg Castle.
    • Ironically, the Protestants later would condemn others as heretics to be burned at the stake. One of the most famous cases is Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and philosopher who denied the trinity, after being condemned by Catholics in France, he escaped to Geneva where he was also condemned by the Calvinists to be burned at the stake.
    • The Anabaptists were persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. Unlike Calvinists, Anabaptists failed to gain recognition in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and as a result, they continued to be persecuted in Europe long after that treaty was signed.
    • Similar fate met the Czech Unity of Brethren (the precursor to the "Moravian Church".) They were originally persecuted both by the Catholics and the Utraquist Protestant majority in the Czech lands, and then, as the Treaty of Westphalia confirmed the Austrian Empire as Catholic, they were just as persecuted as other Protestants there.

Works set in the time period:

In General


  • The 2005 Austrian film The Headsman is about a former army captain who takes the executioner's sword after marrying the daughter of his predecessor, while dispatching Protestants, including his childhood friend, in 16th century Tyrol.
  • The 2003 film Luther is a (rather inaccurate) biopic about Martin Luther that shows him first becoming disillusioned with the organization of the Catholic Church on a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • The 1950s "Hussite Trilogy" (Jan Hus, Jan Žižka and Proti všem) by Czech director Otakar Vávra depicts the events of Czech Proto-Reformation in the 15th century (also rather inaccurately, which is no surprise in 1950s Czechoslovakia).
  • The second and often disregarded half of the Every Sperm Is Sacred sketch in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life takes place in the house accross the street, where a Protestant householder loudly expounds to his wife on the true meaning of the Lutheran Reformation - at great length and detail, he explains it boils down to the right to use contraceptives. Which therefore demonstrates the superiority of Protestant Christianity. A longer sequence cut from the final edit deals with The Adventures of Martin Luther, expounding the Reformation in the style of a Hollywood action-hero movie.


  • Parodied in Discworld: After being brought down from their status as a state religion that threatened to go on a worldwide holy war against heretics ("heretics" being people saying the Discworld isn't a globe), the Omnians now schism so often (by nailing their theses to church doors) that there's now a waiting list (and you can't hear yourself think for all the hammering).


  • The first half of Sabaton's 2012 album Carolus Rex covers the Thirty Years' War from the Swedish point of view. By the 1600s, Sweden was majority-Lutheran, and thus King Gustaf II Adolf intervened in the war on the Protestant side, as the song "The Lion from the North" describes:
    ''A storm over Europe unleashed
    Dawn of war, a trail of destruction
    The power of Rome won't prevail
    See the Catholics shiver and shake''

Tabletop Games

  • The "Objectionists" in 7th Sea are a Crystal Dragon Jesus version of the Protestants, started by a Eisen monk named Mattias Lieber who in Octavus of 1517 nailed a paper calling for the reform of the Vaticine church. The paper resulted in a split in the church and the "War of the Cross", an equivalent of the Thirty Years' War.

Video Games

  • Civilization V's "Into The Renaissance" scenario, which starts in the aftermath of the Great Schism, allows players to trigger the Reformation by researching Humanism.
  • Europa Universalis covers the timeframe in which the Reformation took place, and has corresponding event chains for Catholic countries. The event will first create the "Protestant" faith (representing the Lutherans), which will start spreading and converting provinces to a point where some nations might adopt it as their state religion, and later the "Reformed" (representing the Calvinists) will also appear doing the same. Later expansions introduced Anglicanism, exclusive to England and Great Britain, and even added the possibility to bring the Husseites back in Bohemia.

Web Video

  • A recurring subject in Lutheran Satire. The episode "The Reformation PiggyBackers'' satirizes the debates between the Reformers, as Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII all try to "steal the reformation" from Luther.