When the gods come crashing down

Sometimes the old gods slowly fade into oblivion. Contrary to popular perception this seems likely the case for ancient paganism. The conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion began the process of a hand-off and the commanding heights of classical culture that took over a century to complete. There were punctuating moments, such as the apostasy of Julian in the 360s, or the mostly symbolic ban on public paganism by Theodosius in the 390s (the Serapeum was destroyed by a vigilante mob). But pagans in the form of the Neoplatonic school persisted into the 6th century, while elite pagans such as Marcellinus maintained power and influence deep into the second half of the 5th century.

Call this “normal” cultural evolution. Antiquity evolved from being predominantly pagan to predominantly Christian (though a small cultured pagan minority persisted even until the Islamic conquest in the Near East, such as the Sabians of Haran).

The Reformation period was different. In a single generation one thousand years of a coherent and unified Western Christian ideology collapsed, and was replaced by something very different.

Note here that I said Western Christian ideology. The reality is that Western Christianity was never as unified or coherent as Western Christians themselves envisaged themselves to be (or aspired to be). There were episodes of hostility between particular kingdoms and the Roman papacy. Heresies such as that of the Cathars, and popular revolts with a religious tinge such as that of the Hussites. And finally, there were periods of multiple popes, which undermined the credibility of the institution of the Church in the medieval period.

But all this pales next to the magnitude and scope of the revolt against the establishment of the Western Christian church that occurred in the 1520s. Martin Luther went from being a Christian cleric within the established Church to declaring the pope the anti-Christian! Previously devout peasants in Switzerland turned on the relics and churches which they had only recently venerated, and engaged in mob iconoclasm. Whereas monarchs, such as Henry IV, ultimately compromised with the clerical estate (or, submitted), Henry VIII of England managed to destroy or subordinate the institutions of the church to his own will and pleasure.

There are many theories for why the Reformation occurred when it did. Some of them are rooted in technology, in particular the printing press. Others point to the development of proto-national identities, such as the rise of German nationalism and its leveraging by Luther against his “Roman” persecutors.

These specific issues are not interesting to me. Rather, what they point out to us that there can be cultural revolutions that occur very rapidly. One can point to the pacific post-World War II Japanese, and contrast them with the militaristic Japanese of the first half of the 20th century. Or the shift of Russia from being a conservative autocracy in the 1910s to a revolutionary society in the 1920s. But these are modern events, and moderns are liable to suggest that our own epoch is sui generis in these sorts of turnovers of values. But the Reformation shows that revolutionary changes in whole societies can occur rather rapidly even in a pre-modern context.

In other words, cultural revolution is not a derived characteristic of our species, but perhaps a very old one. The rapid expansion of the Austronesians. Or the radiation of non-African humanity. These come out of a vacuum, a cultural-demographic analog to the inflationary universe. But given enough time perhaps our species is simply subject to these sorts of explosions of creative change and innovation.

8 thoughts on “When the gods come crashing down

  1. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading “The History of the Medieval World” by Susan Wise Bauer. It’s always striking to read about the many quasi-theological divisions in the East Roman Empire over time. Arianism, Monophysitism, Iconoclasm, etc. These “engaged” public conversation in the same way that American society ca. 2017 treats immigration, health care, the war on terror, etc.

    One wonders what the outcome would have been if the printing press / widespread literacy had figured into Byzantine theological issues.

  2. she’s a conservative xtian and tends to focus on the theological and political aspects of history a lot. i think it’s kind of misleading, and i’m of the school that these sorts of arguments of an elite sort probably don’t give us a good picture of life during that period (and perhaps what really animated people).

  3. Your post makes it appear that Luther sprang fully formed like Athena from Zeus or Aphrodite on the half shell.

    Perhaps out of ignorance, I have long thought that (the conventional scholarly wisdom was that) Luther was the successful culmination of a long period that prepared the ground for the Reformation, and included movements such as the Hussites in Bohemia and the Lollards in England.* Thus, the “single generation” of change is misleading. Much happened in advance that was much less obvious, just as in the American Revolution, where the period between the F&I War and 1775 was of central importance.

    OTOH, The Cathars were something else entirely.

    *Wikipedia seems to agree with me on the Hussites, not that that is definitive. Also, I’d not be surprised if you were able to find a different Wikipedia entry that contradicts this one!

  4. that is correct.

    but those movements hand long existed in the background. and previous periods of church decline led to general reform (e.g., under hildebrand). luther himself began as a reformist catholic. where he went within 10 years though was far further than groups like the lollards or hussites.

    basically the ‘background conditions’ are obvious in hindsight after a revolution. but if institutions reform they remove background conditions….

    the cathars seem somewhat sui generis. but their heresy was also of narrow cultural scope..

  5. Fair enough. It’s very much a “ruler-based” overview of history, that’s for sure — but that seems to be the most common approach across the board.

    Can you recommend an accessible treatment of history (roughly medieval to the present) that deals more with everyday life? (Standards of living, social habits, etc.)

  6. I did read that book, on your recommendation — though it’s been a few years so I should re-read. I’d be interested in something with perhaps a broader scope (time and space).

    I didn’t know that the one I am reading is aimed at teens. I know she has simplified books for home-schooling but not sure this is one of them. It’s an easy read and perhaps now I have my reason why.

    [check out chris wickham’s work -razib]

  7. I wonder if there is a bit of a contradiction between what you say about the superficiality of ideology on the one hand and the possibility of cultural revolution on the other. If Swiss Protestants had once venerated relics and then suddenly turned to smashing them, that suggests that, in that case at least, ideology was a strong motivator. If ideology had not been a strong motivator, I would have expected evidence that, for example, veneration of relics had never been a significant part of popular worship in the areas that became Protestant.

    To the extent the Reformation simply reaffirmed preexisting cultural differences, I can accept that the ideological shifts were superficial, but there does seem to be some evidence that ideology can stir up popular passions. I suppose the question is under what conditions does that happen.

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