The Reformation and European identity

Although Protestantism played a significant role in the history of Europe, European identity predates the upheaval of the sixteenth century.

European identity was forged along the roads travelled by architects and sculptors who journeyed around Europe from the Carolingian renaissance to the gothic period. It was written between the lines of the “Christian republic” of Italian and Rhenish humanists. It was carried from university to university on the footsteps of Meister Eckhart and Albert the Great.

Similarly, European identity shaped the hopes and disillusions of Luther and Calvin. Beyond the controversies, the destiny of Europe was determined by that singular meeting of the Latin and Germanic worlds. The Reformation, which followed the fall of Byzantium and the loss of the ancient world, the discovery of the New World in 1492 and the major shift of the Copernican revolution, but preceded the century of revolutions, heralded a clear rupture in European identity. Europe, which until then had shared the same faith, spoken the same language – at least within an elite – and pointed its history in the same direction, was riven by a fratricide conflict, in which the enemy, as Montaigne despairingly observed, was often one’s brother, mother or husband.

In this regard, the Reformation contributed to the shaping of a European identity by reconfiguring the balance of power in ways that foreshadowed 20th-century developments. In the 16th century, one’s relationship to God played a central role in the collective consciousness and defined every aspect of existence.  “Religious tolerance” was unthinkable: every faction saw the other as a canker on society. It was not a time of nuance, to say the least, and, to restore the proper order, the solution was often to eradicate the other. It fell to the political authorities to re-establish peace, with widely varying outcomes in Germany, France or the Netherlands.

The Reformation thus played an important role in the development of European identity and continues to do so today, through its influence on culture and society. As John Calvin wrote in a letter to Charles V in 1543: “A breach must be opened in the walls of our despair.”

Isabelle Graesslé