Historical Reprints History Age of the Reformation

Age of the Reformation

Age of the Reformation
Catalog # SKU1472
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 2.00 lbs
Author Name Preserved Smith


Age of the Reformation

By Preserved Smith

The excuse for writing another history of the Reformation is the need for putting that movement in its proper relations to the economic and intellectual revolutions of the sixteenth century. The labor of love necessary for the accomplishment of this task has employed most of my leisure for the last six years and has been my companion through vicissitudes of sorrow and of joy.


Though in some sense every age is one of transition and every generation sees the world remodelled, there sometimes comes a change so startling and profound that it seems like the beginning of a new season in the world's great year. The snows of winter melt for weeks, the cold winds blow and the cool rains fall, and we see no change until, almost within a few days, the leaves and blossoms put forth their verdure, and the spring has come.

Such a change in man's environment and habits as the world has rarely seen, took place in the generation that reached early manhood in the year 1500. [1483-1546] In the span of a single life--for convenience let us take that of Luther for our measure--men discovered, not in metaphor but in sober fact, a new heaven and a new earth. In those days masses of men began to read many books, multiplied by the new art of printing. In those days immortal artists shot the world through with a matchless radiance of color and of meaning.

In those days Vasco da Gama and Columbus and Magellan opened the watery ways to new lands beyond the seven seas. In those days Copernicus established the momentous truth that the earth was but a tiny planet spinning around a vastly greater sun. In those days was in large part accomplished the economic shift from medieval gild to modern production by capital and wages. In those days wealth was piled up in the coffers of the merchants, and a new power was given to the life of the individual, of the nation, and of the third estate. In those days the monarchy of the Roman church was broken, and large portions of her dominions seceded to form new organizations, governed by other powers and animated by a different spirit.

Antecedents of the Reformation

Other generations have seen one revolution take place at a time, the sixteenth century saw three, the Rise of Capitalism, the end of the Renaissance, and the beginning of the Reformation. All three, interacting, modifying each other, conflicting as they sometimes did, were equally the consequences, in different fields, of antecedent changes in man's circumstances. All life is an adaptation to environment; and thus from every alteration in the conditions in which man lives, usually made by his discovery of new resources or of hitherto unknown natural laws, a change in his habits of life must flow. Every revolution is but an adjustment to a fresh situation, intellectual or material, or both.


Certainly, economic and psychological factors were alike operative in producing the three revolutions. The most general economic force was the change from "natural economy" to "money economy," i.e. from a society in which payments were made chiefly by exchange of goods, and by services, to one in which money was both the agent of exchange and standard of value. In the Middle Ages production had been largely co-operative; the land belonged to the village and was apportioned out to each husbandman to till, or to all in common for pasture. Manufacture and commerce were organized by the gild--a society of equals, with the same course of labor and the same reward for each, and with no distinction save that founded on seniority--apprentice, workman, master-workman. But in the later Middle Ages, and more rapidly at their close, this system broke down under the necessity for larger capital in production and the possibility of supplying it by the increase of wealth and of banking technique that made possible investment, rapid turn-over of capital, and corporate partnership. The increase of wealth and the changed mode of its production has been in large part the cause of three developments which in their turn became causes of revolution: the rise of the bourgeoisie, of nationalism, and of individualism.

The bourgeoisie

Just as the nobles were wearing away in civil strife and were seeing their castles shot to pieces by cannon, just as the clergy were wasting in supine indolence and were riddled by the mockery of humanists, there arose a new class, eager and able to take the helm of civilization, the moneyed men of city and of trade. Nouveaux riches as they were, they had an appetite for pleasure and for ostentation unsurpassed by any, a love for the world and an impatience of the meek and lowly church, with her ideal of poverty and of chastity. In their luxurious and leisured homes they sheltered the arts that made life richer and the philosophy, or religion, that gave them a good conscience in the work they loved. Both Renaissance and Reformation were dwellers in the cities and in the marts of commerce.

National states

It was partly the rise of the third estate, but partly also cultural factors, such as the perfecting of the modern tongues, that made the national state one of the characteristic products of modern times. Commerce needs order and strong government; the men who paid the piper called the tune; police and professional soldiery made the state, once so racked by feudal wars, peaceful at home and dreaded abroad. If the consequence of this was an increase in royal power, the kings were among those who had greatness thrust upon them, rather than achieving it for themselves. They were but the symbols of the new, proudly conscious nation, and the police commissioners of the large bankers and traders.


The reaction of nascent capitalism on the individual was no less marked than on state and society, though it was not the only cause of the new sense of personal worth. Just as the problems of science and of art became most alluring, the man with sufficient leisure and resource to solve them was developed by economic forces. In the Middle Ages men had been less enterprising and less self-conscious. Their thought was not of themselves as individuals so much as of their membership in groups. The peoples were divided into well-marked estates, or classes; industry was co-operative; even the great art of the cathedrals was rather gild-craft than the expression of a single genius; even learning was the joint property of universities, not the private accumulation of the lone scholar. But with every expansion of the ego either through the acquisition of wealth or of learning or of pride in great exploits, came a rising self-consciousness and self-confidence, and this was the essence of the individualism so often noted as one of the contrasts between modern and medieval times. The child, the savage, and to a large extent the undisciplined mind in all periods of life and of history, is conscious only of object; the trained and leisured intellect discovers, literally by "reflection," the subjective. He is then no longer content to be anything less than himself, or to be lost in anything greater.

Just as men were beginning again to glory in their own powers came a series of discoveries that totally transformed the world they lived in. So vast a change is made in human thought and habit by some apparently trivial technical inventions that it sometimes seems as if the race were like a child that had boarded a locomotive and half accidentally started it, but could neither guide nor stop it. Civilization was born with the great inventions of fire, tools, the domestication of [Inventions] animals, writing, and navigation, all of them, together with important astronomical discoveries, made prior to the beginnings of recorded history. On this capital mankind traded for some millenniums, for neither classic times nor the Dark Ages added much to the practical sciences. But, beginning with the thirteenth century, discovery followed discovery, each more important in its consequences than its last. One of the first steps was perhaps the recovery of lost ground by the restoration of the classics. Gothic art and the vernacular literatures testify to the intellectual activity of the time, but they did not create the new elements of life that were brought into being by the inventors.

What a difference in private life was made by the introduction of chimneys and glass windows, for glass, though known to antiquity, was not commonly applied to the openings that, as the etymology of the English word implies, let in the wind! By the fifteenth century the power of lenses to magnify and refract had been utilized, as mirrors, then as spectacles, to be followed two centuries later by telescopes and microscopes. Useful chemicals were now first applied to various manufacturing processes, such as the tinning of iron. The compass, with its weird power of pointing north, guided the mariner on uncharted seas. The obscure inventor of gunpowder revolutionized the art of war more than all the famous conquerors had done, and the polity of states more than any of the renowned legislators of antiquity. The equally obscure inventor of mechanical clocks--a great improvement on the older sand-glasses, water-glasses, and candles--made possible a new precision and regularity of daily life, an untold economy of time and effort.

Softcover, 8" x 10.5", 450+ pages


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