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Notes on Religion in 16th Century Europe


The word "atheist" in the 1500s was commonly used to denote a libertine rather to claim that one did not believe in God. To be described as an atheist was an insult. As the French historian Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) wrote, there were "conceptual difficulties" in the 1500s in denying the existence of God. "Every activity of the day ... was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions." And asking someone whether he believed in God was to suggest the possibility that he did not and must have been as insulting as asking if he were a sodomite or murderer. Peter Watson in his book Ideas (published in 2006) agrees with Febvre. Watson writes that "One reason Montaigne never really doubted that there was a God was because to do so in his lifetime was next to impossible."

Atheism was little more tolerated in the late 1600s, as indicated by the Enlightenment's John Locke claiming that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

Sensuality, Sin and Religious Conflict

Having a fear of God was still seen as a requirement for being a good person. And these were also times of sensuality, in Italy perhaps more so than in England, the English tending to see the Italians as more morally corrupt. It was in Italy – more densely populated than England – that the Renaissance had begun, and with the Renaissance came more liberalism in sensuality. The English saw their only great city, London (population 120,000), as more sinful than the rest of their country. London was seen as a place of pleasure and freedom. Relations between men and women were more casual there than elsewhere in England.

On the European continent many people accepted prostitution in accord with Augustine's belief that it prevented worse sins. A few had been railing against prostitution, but since the later Middle Ages licensed houses of prostitution had been common in urban centers and taken for granted. In Calvinist Geneva, authorities stood guard in the houses of prostitution, allowing single men to enter and turning married men away.

Prostitution aside, the people of Europe were grasping for moral guidance. Many were impressed by developments in Geneva. Calvinism spread from Geneva into France, where it came into conflict with Catholicism. Catholics and Protestants in France wanted to rid their communities of corruption, and they saw corruption in each other's religion. Bigotry regarding morality was itself a moral problem, and it produced what in the 21st century would be considered extremism. Protestant ministers and Catholic priests encouraged assaults on their rival faith, bringing more war between Catholics and Protestants. Crowds of Protestants attacked and killed Catholics, smashed statues and stained glass windows, and they defiled sacred vestments, vessels and Eucharistic elements. French commerce declined and agriculture suffered as the crops in many areas were destroyed in the anarchy. The upheaval in France has been described as the greatest bloodshed in France's history aside from the French Revolution that would come two centuries later.

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