The Academy: session abstract and readings

History, Lecture 2: The Counter Reformation and the wars of religion

Dr Jacqueline Rose

The early modern era was an age of religious war.  Far from engendering toleration, the Protestant and Catholic reformations intensified persecution and intolerance. Confessional division caused conflicts within and between states which resulted in rebellions, assassinations, cross-border intervention, and military campaigns by non-state actors.  Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, governments, clergy, and people struggled to establish religious peace. Theories of toleration were slow to emerge and took even longer to be widely accepted; those which were proposed were far less ‘modern’ than might initially be assumed. Yet early modern people found practical ways to accommodate religious pluralism, establishing modes of co-existence which allowed them to live with difference and dissent.

This session examines the ways in which advocates of persecution and toleration perceived of and appealed to ‘public’ audiences. We will discuss who and what was meant when the term ‘public’ was invoked, and what its implications were in a world which shunned ‘populism’ and ‘democracy’. In the years around 1700, the idea of the public as a neutral and rational arbiter became common currency.  However, this public was often a tool of polemic and appeals to it were made to disguise partisan positioning. The ‘publics’ of Reformation and early modern Europe were not just constituted by a Habermasian sphere of print, newspapers, and coffeehouses, but also by crowds, petitioning, and older forms of collective popular action.
Questions for discussion: 

1. How have scholars adapted and nuanced Habermas’s model of the ‘public sphere’?
2. How did the public sphere and public action echo older political practices? Was anything new occurring?
3. What unwritten rules existed for intervening in public debate?
4. Why did toleration have such negative resonances in Reformation Europe?
5. How can tolerance and intolerance be in dialogue with each other rather than being mutually exclusive?
6. What implications arise from looking at practical coexistence rather than grand theories of toleration?
7. What can this work on living with religious diversity teach us about early modern capacities for accepting other forms of difference?


See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

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13 & 14 October 2018, The Barbican, London