The lessons of History

The lessons of History

Stories only happen to people who can tell them” Chris Nawrat

The past is not past. It is present here and now” James Joyce

MANY ARE CAUTIOUS about the lessons of history. The problem with the lessons of history is that we try to transpose two different situations and pretend that what happened in one year or in one era, is directly relevant to today. It is indirectly relevant, but if one tries to draw too precise a parallel we are liable to make mistakes. Acton said that history has nothing to teach us except that history has nothing to teach us; something we would do well to remember.

History is inescapable. We carry our past with us: the burden of humanity. But our past does not own us; we own it.

It is not history but memory, reformed and remade in our own image. Memory is historical but it is transient and partial. Memory may be unreliable; its cousin, nostalgia, can be irrational; our judgements upon it frequently relative. History is to society what memory is to the individual; without it, we do not know who we are and cannot make decisions about where we should be going. The past is the only map we have. With disarming candour, Voltaire described history as a set of tricks we play on the dead. It can at times seem just one puzzle after another. But then, the dead always escape us. They will never perform for our entertainment, never produce another picture. If we wait to hear from them “We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

Stories are born of history. They are not beholden to it – and neither is art that seeks to portray those stories. An individual work of art is a very minor episode in history but it can shape our image of the past. The artist, just like historians, presents a version of events placing them in a certain light. Every time a brush sets out on a journey across a canvas a world is being created. A touch here, a dab there, an effect of the light in the background can prove their empathy or show off their mastery. The dead will always escape us.

We are left chasing shadows. All history is a construction, telling stories that coexist with asking questions. Artifice, illusion, deceit even. As with art so with history. The artist’s task was ‘to make you feel… to make you see’ according to Joseph Conrad. Historians cannot all be artists, but something of that spirit should inform their task. While the nature of memory may be constant, the nature of history has changed radically over my lifetime, for better and for worse. The divide between the academic and the popular has become a chasm. Much of historical scholarship is cluttered with unintelligible jargon, driven by the concerns of the present and failing to convey just how different the past really was.

What a difference 500 years makes. Or does it? Art and history frame things in different ways. Occasionally they become one. History at its most basic requires two things, first for something to happen, and second for someone to tell the story. Bosch and Bruegel told the stories, alerting us to what people were thinking and what was happening at a turning point in history.


A New Heaven and a New Earth

No revolution however drastic has ever involved a total repudiation of what came before it” Patrick Collinson

EVERYTHING IS the cause of everything. The Reformation can be made as responsible as one wants for a watershed in history. In a messy world, a vast landscape of contingency, it came to symbolise liberation, emancipation of the mind, a precondition of so much that happened in the 16th century. Would the world of science change? The Church condemned Galileo and it took over 300 years for a Pope to admit there had been a mistake.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation were, according to Patrick Collinson, “the blast furnace in which the modern state was formed”. The wars of religion and the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical powers and property facilitated the process of state-building. According to the German sociologist Max Weber, the Reformation was responsible for opening minds that lead to the ‘miracle of the West’ and had a great deal to do with the rise of capitalism and industrial civilisation, providing an ethical motive for the accumulation of wealth. Yet the world of magic, witches, alchemy, Apocalypse, Heaven and Hell, lived on.

The Early Modern world of historians is not modern at all. It had more in common with what went before than what came after. Fervent progress, a new consciousness, an awareness of what might be, and fundamental belief in a new Heaven and a new Earth, were all now coupled with turmoil and catastrophe.

What distinguished the modern European from medieval Christendom was a way of thinking. There was a growing conviction that mankind could master the world in which it lived. The great Renaissance figures were full of self-confidence. Their God-given ingenuity could and should be used to unravel the secrets of God’s universe. By extension that also meant man’s fate on earth could be controlled and improved. That was the decisive break with the mentality of the Middle Ages when religion, superstition and mysticism reinforced the idea that humanity was a hopeless pawn of Providence, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible workings of the environment. They were dominated by a paralysing anxiety about human inadequacy and ignorance, and by the concept of original sin.

The Renaissance on the other hand bred a sense of liberation, curiosity and a growing awareness of human potential. Speculation, initiative, experiment and exploration would surely be rewarded with success. Fears and inhibitions that had prevented new ideas flourishing before were conquered. New ideas and new forms were acceptable and challenging in a way they would not have been without mankind’s re-evaluation of itself. As cities grew and foreign trade developed, rich and powerful patrons and technical progress combined to overcome the despondency surrounding the Church and its teaching, the spiritual malaise that surrounded so much of Christianity and its fossilised clerical attitudes.

It was no accident that the roots of the Renaissance and the Reformation were in the realm of ideas. The New Learning of the 15th century had three novel features: the cultivation of long-neglected classical authors (especially those such as Cicero and Homer who had been ignored by medieval scholars), the cultivation of ancient Greek as an equal partner to Latin, and the rise of Biblical scholarship based on critical study of original Greek and Hebrew texts that provided the link between the secular Renaissance and the religious Reformation which put special emphasis on scripture. Scholarly criticism of classical texts pre-dated the art of printing but the presses speeded it up. Where Petrarch led, Boccaccio and others followed.

Where the Turk invaded, waves of Greek refugees carrying manuscripts moved west before them. The Hellenist Pico della Mirandola explored the Cabala, Marsilio Ficino the work of Hermes Trismegistus and Johann Reuchlin, Hebrew.

Humanist groups grew up from Oxford to Salamanca, Krakow to Rotterdam; all paid homage to Erasmus, the ‘centre of the scientific study of Divinity’ who did more than anyone to marry humanism with the traditions of the Church.

 The New World would require the New Man. Education played a key role. Whilst keeping the bedrock of Christian instruction, gymnastics were now taught alongside Latin and Greek. Literature in the vernacular quickly became national literature and a key component of national identity.

More people were reading, knowledge was increasing. The upper classes, the rulers, and merchants, were beginning to be better educated. The printing presses were working, the numbers of printers multiplying fast, libraries though small in number were adding to the number and range of their books. Printing made study possible in a way manuscripts did not; texts could be more easily acquired and compared, critical texts prepared. The Renaissance was new information.

Europe might be taking shape, reform in the air, scientific discovery, mathematics, overseas exploration, a sense of freedom, liberation, curiosity, newness, rebirth; yet still the old world lived on. Europe wanted reform. It had not been expecting revolution. Reform had been tried and failed before. Troubled times produced prophetic literature, tales of wondrous signs and monstrous births kept the new presses rolling and became money-spinners. In 1502 Apocalypsis Nova, a ‘New Account of the Last Days’, was a publishing sensation. The book predicted that Spiritual Men would herald an Angelic Pastor.

The gospel according to Luther: liberation theology

Luther was not a modern man. He was a late-medieval Catholic. He offered new answers to old questions. He did not ask new questions. Luther claimed to have discovered the Gospels. Stirred into a mix with his university lectures and criticism of Church practice, the question arises what was the essence of the Gospel according to Luther? Was he simply an innocent victim of bad theology? Taught by Nominalists who threatened the scholasticism of Aquinas, he would have been exposed to sermons about sin and repentance, salvation by contrition alone, by God’s grace, it was not something that could be bought with a virtuous life. With Luther, the Ten Commandments took over from the seven deadly sins as the new moral gold standard. The sacraments shifted from something God did for humanity to something humanity did for God. Whether Luther nailed or posted his 95 theses on 31 October 1517 – he went public. The rest is history.

On the eve of All Saints’, the unthinkable had happened as the Church turned on itself. Revolution was in the air. Luther’s manifestos became virtual declarations of war on the established Church. It is not possible to understand the period of history covered by the lifetime of Bruegel without understanding the upheavals that then occurred in Latin Christianity.

Ideas mattered and the most incendiary ones were in the Bible, a potentially explosive and unpredictable force in every age. Through the new power of the printed word those ideas spread fast.

 In the hierarchical world at the end of the Middle Ages, the ruling classes believed that the people, the unthinking masses, would believe anything. The vast majority of people and virtually all women, were illiterate, unable to read for themselves even the simple pamphlets – grievance literature of a high order, targeted specifically at them, that were beginning to appear in their thousands.

Despite the interest of the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire in taking up the torch of reform for their own financial and territorial reasons, the Reformation became a popular movement on a massive scale, whose methods became direct action, their deeply ingrained conservative nature determined on change. By 1520 religion had become a shopping list of complaints and demands alongside material concerns of insurgent peasants, and came to legitimise dysfunctional communal revolt.

The Diet of Worms in April 1521 irrevocably changed the history of Europe. Erasmus had attacked corruption in the Church but not its doctrinal basis.

With publication of his three books the previous year Luther had lost significant support by doing just that. Interrogated by Johann Eck, Luther was asked two simple questions. Are these your books? Do you recant? Luther spelled out that if he could be shown, by the use of scripture, to have spoken against scripture, then and only then would he recant. “If then, I revoke these books, all I shall achieve is to add strength to tyranny, and open not the windows but the doors to this monstrous godlessness, for a wider and freer range than it has ever dared before.” Luther was disputing what everyone was obliged to believe without question. The Middle Ages had spoken. “Here I stand; I can do no other.” The Reformation had replied. It was set to become a motto for all Protestants and, ultimately perhaps, western civilisation.

As the dispute with the Commission had been behind closed doors Luther had been denied a public relations coup. But inside those doors were a large number of people from nobility to merchants. They had all been profoundly affected by it, from the next Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and future King of Denmark to the businessmen attending what for them was a commercial networking opportunity. That network took Luther’s message away with them, out into the Empire. The Diet of Worms had become a mission event, something the organisers had thought it had made impossible. The impact was far more profound than anyone could have anticipated.

Religious protest as political revolt

The question had become resistance or obedience and it was a question that was to haunt the remainder of the 16th century. What Luther had done was resist the two great powers of medieval Europe: the Pope and the Emperor. He had asserted “that it is better to obey God than man”. This was to be Luther’s destiny. Believing devoutly that God exercised control over all events on earth, he looked to current affairs to read God’s message. Not only had Luther seen in the Pope an Anti-Christ but also the Turkish advance threatened Christianity’s very existence.

This, he concluded, must be the end, the Last Days were approaching. Many people agreed with him; he was identified with Elijah and seen by some as the prophet of the Last Days. The end was expected soon. A conjunction of the planets in Pisces at the start of 1524 suggested a terrible deluge was on the way. This had been anticipated for years. Hailstorms in July, religious turmoil and fear of the end of the world boiled over. Religious protest became political revolt.

Worms was the highpoint of Luther’s career, those with Christian faith became polar-ised. His great success had been to establish a basic principle about western Christianity in its Protestant form: justification by faith alone. It meant that God gave us the gift of faith and that this was the only route to salvation.

This was liberating. People were alone in facing their fate, God. This was the distinctive product of the Reformation and is at the centre of the achievements of western civilisation of the last 500 years.

1527 was yet another 9/11 moment. Rome was sacked, utterly and totally, by mutinous troops of the Holy Roman Empire. The world would not be the same again. The Pope’s humiliation was seen by some as a direct message from God to the Church that it had to reform itself following the chaos in northern Europe. By the 1530s even the Pope knew the Church was in crisis.

Miracles and censorship

Counter-Reformation devotion as it became known had begun before the Reformation. The Mass and the breviary were pruned, devotions became more personal than liturgical, the laity encouraged to take communion more frequently and hence go to confession more often, the use of the Bible (in authorised translations of the Vulgate) for devotional purposes approved.

Within a generation the devotion of the Angelus, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for veneration and the cult of Marianism would be widespread. Yet the physical ‘miracle’ associated with sanctity was as valued as in the Middle Ages: the relic that cured, the nun suspended in the air, the signs of the stigmata, the face that shone with an unearthly light, a nun’s ring of flesh, prolonged fasting, incorruptible bodies that gave off fragrant smells, they were all valued uncritically by people. Church ornamentation became more lavish, the furnishing, altars and sepulchres more costly, elaborate tabernacles on the high altar took the place of a cupboard in the sacristy in which the sacrament was reserved, coloured lamps and precious candlesticks stood out.

It was certainly the Counter-Reformation that began the reactive watershed of the Roman Inquisition, the Index of Prohibited Books, the mission to recover Christendom for the Church in Germany, that sent troops into the Netherlands, the Spanish Armada, the suppression of the Reformation in Bohemia, Silesia and the Palatinate, as political Catholicism became aggressive with renewed self-confidence – as well as the commissions of Titian and Rubens, Palestrina and Lassus, the sainthood of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and grandeur.

Scholarship suffered with control of the printing presses. Cautious conservatives could not cope with original minds. Censorship was used to defend orthodoxy by Catholics and Protestants alike, the piles of books that repressive machinery held back reached a long way to the heavens. This new oppression was the first bewildered casualty of a scientific age. The standards of editing were very low, censors were often ill-educated, inefficient, uncertain and unworthy to examine the books piled high on their desks and therefore likely to procrastinate and delay. The more conservative Protestants continued to use medieval books of devotion and even those of the Counter-Reformation, just as Catholics were ready to make use of Lutheran hymns. Yet Christendom continued to believe that a state could not survive or prosper if more than one religion was permitted. Half the Church chose the modern Church as the key to understanding the Bible; the other half chose the Bible as the judge of the modern Church. One focused on the altar, the other on the pulpit. Christendom was divided, there was to be no unity. The word Reformation was enshrined in the high endeavours of medieval sanctity, gazing back to a golden simpler age. It was to lose its halo of idealism within the lifetime of Bruegel as it became associated with zealotry, destruction and discontent. A world reformed and ruined for some. Christendom was entering a new age with other interests and aspirations. It had started to move on.

At the crossroads of medieval mystery and Renaissance humanism

THE APOCALYPSE is a vision of the meaning of history. Apocalyptic writing is revelation, it is prophesy. It encapsulated 1000 years of thought before 1AD about the purpose of history. With the coming of the prophets there was a notion that there was some significance to world events and that a force was driving history. The golden time was in the Garden of Eden, then the times were bad and the belief was that it would get so bad, that a new world would in some way break through.

A linear concept of time arrived at the same point as the concept of a vengeful God who would arrive and smash the evil enemy. This was a trend in Jewish theology, the fringe philosophy of vengeance and the end of time that is in the Book of Revelation. Because it is in the Bible it gained great authority and has run as a strand throughout western history ever since.

Apocalyptic visions and narratives had their precursors in prophetic eschatology, that began around the time of the Exile to Babylon, ensured the Jews that God would smash down mountains, beat a path of return, rain down blood-curdling, spine-chilling tortures and destruction on their enemies in order to give reassurance, sustenance and faith to a dispossessed people in exile. It was the literature of salvation and the religion of comfort.

The problem for the prophets was that history did not chime with their prophesies, it never turned out as badly as they had said it would after which apocalyptic visions removed God’s saving acts from history into the realm of symbolic archetypes. It became a cosmic vision where the saviours were angelic warriors; the enemies demonic hosts and graphic types all larger than life.

Humanity has always asked the question: what will happen? Apocalyptic religious literature tried to answer that question. At a time of persecution, a time when for many, everything they held to be sacred was being destroyed by people many regarded as anti-Christian or Satanic, there was an even greater search for meaning. The Book of Revelation gave meaning to that kind of experience. It works with the Bible story as a whole, from the Creation to the Last Judgement; was composed to be read, not preached from; was for individual encounter not to exhort people to do things. Because the reader is located in the story, for those that believed it, it gave them meaning.

The impact of the book, which has made it such valuable source material for artists and scholars, is that it is a good read; a speculative, lurid, alternative parallel-world fantasy – sensational early ‘pulp fiction’. It is incredible, fantastic literature, full of emblems, allegories, powerful descriptions, dragons, monsters from the deep, struggles between the good and the damned, riders of the apocalypse and trumpets sounding, a gripping and compelling narrative. It gives a very powerful, cryptic narrative of the history of the world and its destination. For those that believed it, and believed it was sacred, it was ‘un-put-down-able’. It had everything, hence the reader could find in it what they wanted.

Part of its enduring appeal is that is impenetrable; the idea that it contains secret knowledge called forth everybody’s fantasies, particularly in the late Middle Ages. It changed the rules. The Reformation saw the conversion of Constantine as the beginning of the Anti¬christ and calculated the Last Days from that date. A thousand years earlier St Augustine had already tried to eliminate any idea of calculating a date although he did hint that the formation of the Church was the beginning of the Millennium.

 The number of the ‘Beast’

Cataclysmic events, shattering the cultural certainties of the time akin to planes flying into the twin towers, makes it almost impossible for us to understand how dangerous a moment this was. It convinced contemporaries that they were living right on the edge of prophecy – they were utterly convinced that they were living at the end of time.

Fear drove people to an encounter with Revelation, in an attempt to match up stories, plots, narratives and symbols in the Book with what was going on in the world. People who believed in Apocalypse identified with the characters in the Book.

Persecuted Protestants saw themselves as the just; the ones who would see the power and the glory, their enemies would be the ones struck down by the returning Christ, feelings that arose out of persecution and thrived on persecution. Any time is susceptible to being seen through the mirror of the Apocalypse but the times of Bosch and Bruegel were particularly so.

There was a sense that if God had allowed terrible things to happen, He had to be telling the world something. This made militant sectarian sects believe that if they did not act, then they would suffer and be damned. These people were not mad. This was mainstream Protestant culture. Scripture for them all was a handbook, not just about how the world worked but also about the future. Mystical mathematics, mysterious numbers that held the key to a timetable for the end of the world were thought to be at the heart of Revelation. Study of the Book became a science as intellectuals attempted to explore its meaning, rigorously matching symbols to history; logarithms were not invented to help children do their mathematics but for John Napier, a fanatical Protestant, to calculate the number of the ‘Beast’ and later the date of the Apocalypse with absolute accuracy. Failure of the end of the world to materialise in line with a specific prophecy did not discourage people; they simply assumed that their calculation of the mathematics was wrong. This was taken so seriously because it was believed to be the literal truth, even the allegorical writing with its incredible drama of the theatre of war, its language of prophecy was considered amenable to rational analysis.

Magic – an optimistic message for a pessimistic age

Magic was one of the great passions of the age. It was a source of wisdom and power, not arcane esoteric and removed from mainstream thought as it is today. In the world of Bosch and Bruegel, religion, science and magic all jostled for position in creative tension with one another in an age that loved secrets and penetrating their meaning. The promotion of magic in the 15th century was due to three things: the discovery of the works of Hermes Trismegistus, the 900 propositions of Pico della Mirandola that brought the Cabala into the reckoning and the rise of neo-Platonism with the rediscovery and reinterpretation of the authority of Plato. All three delivered authority from the past, something the age was obsessed by. Add to that mix Biblical scriptures, the Renaissance desire to uncover something of the present in them, and the stage was set for Marsilio Ficino, a kind of text scout for the Medici’s, who in 1461 was told to stop working on Plato and begin to unravel Trismegistus.

Trismegistus saw the universe as one. He regarded what went on in the heavens to be reflected on the earth and within the soul of man. This was both a new way of looking at things and an example of the old world yielding knowledge and understanding of the present. What was surprising, less acceptable, un-Christian and more Egyptian were instructions for calling on the spirits to animate statues and to make living gods through magical manipulation of the cosmos. Trismegistus was seen to be a magus, both as magician and someone who understood the workings of the heavens and the science of the cosmos. It was just like the magi of the Christmas story being invested with a great deal of authority. By following a star to the birthplace of Christ they brought the Caldeans and Middle Eastern culture into Christianity with the power to nominate the King.

Magic fed into science. It legitimised the focus on nature. No longer was it something profane to be escaped from, but accepted the importance of observation – “as above so below” was the phrase that embraced the entire system of traditional magic inscribed by Trismegistus, and believed to hold the key to all mysteries.

 ‘As above so below’ philosophers did not see themselves as challenging biblical orthodoxy. The world itself was a part of creation, thus to study its secrets was a way to help understand the Bible: science was therefore a route to understanding the hidden meanings in religious texts, hence alchemy was religious enquiry. Many of these people really believed that they had been chosen by God to reveal the ultimate secrets of nature. Their language, which today sounds fantastical, cryptic, encoded, symbolic and secretive, is one reason why some commentators have been seduced into seeing it as the key to Bosch.3

A world of science and revelation

The religious and political upheavals of Europe set in train by Martin Luther began a chain reaction that blew across the continent. A scientific revolution was not far behind, marked by the publication of three books in 1543: the anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius, the first translation of the Greek mathematics and physics of Archimedes, and The Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs by Copernicus which put the sun at the centre of the heavens.

Man’s understanding of the world in which he lived was being challenged as much as his beliefs. It was a strange kind of revolution; no one talked about it at the time. When Andreas Wessels or Weasels or in the more dignified Latin, Vesalius, first became interested in dissecting bodies in the early 1530s, he had to procure his specimens by creeping out at night and filching half¬rotten corpses of criminals from gibbets.

Less than ten years later he had become so celebrated that the civic authorities of Padua where he was professor of anatomy timed executions to coincide with lectures to ensure that he would never lack fresh cadavers to cut up. The message of Vesalius was do not rely on authority, find out for yourself. He was discovering the human body. Just as Copernicus changed forever ideas about man’s place in the cosmos, so Vesalius changed forever the approach to human anatomy. Just as the sailors had set sail to discover new worlds, one should learn by doing.

A world without science

Humanist thought, reformation theology, scientific discovery and overseas exploration tend to obscure the fact that magic competed with religion; this was still an era of astrology, miracles, conjuring, witchcraft, necromancy, ghosts, folk cures, omens and fairies. Religious belief continued to be surrounded by irrationality and superstition. Masses were said on every possible occasion. Every organisation from guilds to chivalric orders had patron saints. Pilgrimages were part of life, relics were venerated, belief in the supernatural was more and more enforced as an elaborate hierarchy was established of good and bad angels and universal fear of the Devil. Lucifer was real. The fallen archangel who had once sat beside Gabriel in the highest Heaven, the realm of pure fire where God and the angels resided, was now on the earth, the commander of the forces of darkness. The horrors of Hell were always waiting. The Protestant movement wanted to take the magic out of religion. Even where Protestantism triumphed, and however much they said it, Europe was still devoted to every form of magical belief for a further 300 years.

Alchemists, astrologers, diviners, conjurers, healers and witches filled the landscape throughout the lifetimes of Bosch and Bruegel. The countryside was supposedly full of ghosts, fairies, hobgoblins and elves. Magic and religion were still inseparable throughout the Reformation. Every possible supernatural idea was attacked. Calvin dismissed transubstantiation as ‘conjury’, a conjuring trick. Protestants abhorred oaths, miracles, consecrations, symbols, images, holy water, saints’ days and pilgrimages; ‘Popery’ was black magic, the Pope therefore a wizard and the Mass inevitably a branch of devil worship. They wanted magic-free religion.

Magic was never eliminated completely, nor its interdependence with religion wiped out, despite the Protestant onslaught. The rise of rationalism, the development of science, modern medicine and a seemingly less threatening world in the next century finally had an impact – but it never went away. The sign of the cross, baptisms, oaths in court and the consecration of church buildings, battle standards, food, ships and burial grounds all remained.

New theological and intellectual fashions included a re-appropriation of Aquinas among the Dominicans and a revival of interest in St Augustine and St Paul.

There was a new devotion to St Anne the mother of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin herself had never been so popular and Mary Magdalene was rediscovered as a fusion of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus. Mysticism was always a source of renewal in the 14th century. Some of the writings were identified as the spiritual equivalent of cookbooks. Luther was later suspicious of speculative mysticism as a shortcut and man-made ladder to Heaven. However, a modified adapted method of mystical devotion had a profound impact on 16th century education.



Witchcraft developed in parallel with mysticism. A hangover from Pagan times, witchcraft permeated the whole of Medieval society, from the elites to the lowest classes. Belief in satanic possession, black sorcery, and white magic were part of life. Conventional chronology would expect demonic witchcraft to be part of the Dark Ages, but it was firmly rooted in the early modern era. The Reformation was the age of the witch craze, with Protestants specialising in the detection and burning of witches, whereas denunciations, prosecutions and atrocities largely occurred in Catholic territory. They were both equally zealous. Once killed, medical experts were called to check for the Devil’s mark on the corpses, something they signally failed to find.

As the magic of Catholicism waned so something had to fill the void. For many of those demanding explanations this lead inexorably to the supernatural. At a time of crisis in thinking and belief, witchcraft filled the space left vacant by the ecclesiastical magic of the Church. There was not only a crisis of belief in the 16th century there was a crisis in thinking. It lasted for 300 years. By actively campaigning against witchcraft the Church itself fostered much of the hysteria surrounding witchcraft at the end of the medieval period. Once the Church gave credence to such things, large sums of money could be made by people undertaking to ruin someone’s crops or cause an enemy’s child to miscarry.

Practices that had been tolerated for centuries suddenly appeared as a threat. Innocent VIII launched the Church’s offensive in 1484 with the Bull Summis Desiderantes. The handbook for witch hunters was published two years later, Malleus Maleficarum, the hammer of the witches. Heinrich Kramer, a Dominican priest, wrote it and it soon outsold every book in Europe except the Bible. It was frightening – “Magicians, who are commonly called witches are thus termed on account of the magnitude of their evil deeds. These are they who by the permission of God and by the terrible power of evil spells, without any actual draught or poison, kill human beings.” From the period of the Reformation onwards it has been estimated that over 100,000 men and women went to their deaths in Western Europe convicted of witchcraft, as many as may have died in the Peasants’ Revolt.

Now that everyone knew witches were in league with the Devil, there was to be no restraint. Belief in witchcraft did not depend a great deal on learned doctrine. “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” – thus belief in witchcraft was buried deep in village communities that feared and suspected ‘the other’. So the persecution and the atrocities began. People took matters into their own hands, throwing suspects into a pond. If the person drowned they were innocent, if they floated they were guilty. The black arts of witchcraft were written up, the mechanics of night-flight on broomsticks hypothesised, the menu for a cauldron discussed and the details of orgies conducted on witches’ Sabbaths considered, yet the only evidence of diabolic banquets were the distressed confessions of tortured people.

Women were considered weak, unable to resist temptation, their uncontrolled sexual desires a root cause of the problem. These evil women were believed to anoint themselves with grease from the flesh of unbaptised children, ride stark naked on the backs of rams or broomsticks, cast spells and copulate with demons. Everyone was at risk of being accused, but older, single, poor women were particularly vulnerable as their usefulness to the community was seen to be coming to an end.50

The idea of Christian deviance was not new. The concept of the demonic potentially entering human beings and forming pacts with the Devil had always been there. As the Church was riven in two and people sought a reason for what many saw as something truly terrifying, the idea of the Devil being released into the world was one possible explanation. Satan had been named as a cause of destruction within the Church before the Reformation. Radical Protestants argued that the Devil had been ‘quiet’ before the Reformation. He had been idle, and by exposing the Pope as Anti-Christ, he had been reactivated and was furiously charging through the world trying to corrupt ordinary Christians and lead them to damnation. People were absolutely convinced that the Devil might at any time appear before them and tempt them. The collective hysteria surrounding witchcraft came from the Dark Ages directly into the era of humanism, science and the modern world, just one element of paganism that survived into the Renaissance.

The witch craze presents us with a conundrum. How can the great fear of witches sweeping across Europe be explained just at the moment when the continent trembled on the brink of modernity? How could intelligent and educated men, who seem in so many ways similar to ourselves, have believed such pernicious nonsense? This extraordinary phenomenon was not, as one might imagine, a lingering ancient superstition, but an explosive new force that legitimised murderous persecution and judicial torture. Inextricably bound up with the idea of heresy, to disbelieve in witchcraft itself became heresy, punishable by death. This was an inversion of the Christian orthodoxy of the Dark Ages which held that belief in witches was pagan and a mark of the infidel. Disgust at the cruelty of the religious zealots towards their victims, their prurient fantasies, and their appetite for blood seems to spring from their sanctimony and sadism not being far apart. A last manifestation of ignorance and superstition, even the most profound philosophers of the early modern period subscribed to belief in witches. Crude demonology proclaimed by the churches flourished during the intellectual wars of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Two incompatible sets of belief drew on their hideous reservoirs of hatred, refuelled by the old dualism of God and the Devil. How a new, apparently rational society, could be convulsed by primitive superstition and fear, feasting on the persecution of social nonconformity in the shape of the witch as scapegoat is difficult to comprehend. It may appear nonsense to us, but sincere as they were in their beliefs, from this distance must be treated with due regard for the times. Scholarship by anthropologists about witch-beliefs in other societies at other times paraded by way of explanation shed no light on Europe in the 16th century.

The Enemy Within

Poner una pica en Flandres Anonymous

CHARLES V sought hegemony in Europe. He inherited his mother’s dream to conquer Christendom and to use his authority to defend it against infidel Muslims and the Protestant Reformation. For Charles, the Imperial idea had its roots in the Reconquista. He lacked nothing. He had troops, good generals and loyal followers, incomparable diplomatists, mastery of the sea and the support of bankers like the Fuggers. As if that was not enough, he had America. Spain had become the warehouse of Europe. Spain’s part in resisting the Ottoman expansion was at first reluctant. The rebellion in the Netherlands resulted in a serious diversion of its military strength in northwest Europe. And so Spain went from grandeur to decline in a century.

For a few fabulous decades Spain was to be the greatest power on earth” and “all but the master of Europe.” With Charles V-Carlos I at the helm the country had maintained the finest army in Europe with gold and silver from the Americas. Under Philip II the country was at the pinnacle of its political power whilst being undermined by resistance at home, revolt in the Netherlands and French hostility. To hold together such a vast empire as Philip II inherited, so many nations and people, required a common factor. Inevitably, Philip found this in religion. As Defender of the Faith he set out to establish domination. As an absolute monarch he became the example of a new system of rule, to be copied by other European monarchs that only ended with the French Revolution. As this hegemony ran counter to the spirit of the Reformation, war was inevitable.

Through it all this austere, penitential, workaholic ‘monarch who ruled without leaving his desk’ in the Escorial, tried to enforce spiritual and administrative uniformity which the variety of his dominions would not permit. ‘One monarch, one empire, one sword’ was relentlessly pursued by the king who trabajar para el pueblo, ‘worked for his people’. Considered by William I of Orange-Nassau (1533-1584) ‘a murderer and a liar’, like Don Quixote he tilted at windmills.

Spain suffered for its splendour. The richest coffers in the world were emptied to fight the opposition that Philip saw everywhere: the Moriscos of Granada, the Aragonese, the French Huguenots, Dutch Protestants, he sought to decimate the Church’s enemies across Europe. The Inquisition established in Spain in 1478, combined religion with power politics, and when it began work in 1481 surpassed all Inquisitorial activity that had preceded it in terms of reach and length.

It became one of the most barbaric periods of European history. Jews, then Muslims and Protestants were put through the Inquisitional Court and condemned to torture, imprisonment, exile and death. In 1522 Spain brought the Inquisition to the Netherlands. In the next 13 years, 1300 people were executed for their beliefs. At the time, the Burgundian Circle created in 1512 primarily for the purpose of organizing defence and the collection of tax, was a mosaic of local privileges and of social and cultural divisions. The feudal aristocracy of the countryside contrasted sharply with the wealthy burghers of the towns and cities and the fishing communities. Over 200 towns and cities controlled 50 per cent of European trade and were responsible for paying seven times more in taxes to Spain than it received in bullion from its overseas possessions.

Spain was the most devout and powerful of the Catholic states; yet the Netherlands were open to Protestant influence of every kind in every direction. To the east, the German states were Lutheran or Reformed; to the west after 1558, England was both Protestant and always a potential enemy of Spain; to the south, after 1562, the Huguenots were fighting the Guises and the Catholic League.

The citizens of the Netherlands were prosperous, their cities mercantile, their ports wealthy, their education advanced and their people the kind among whom new reforming ideas spread rapidly.

“The Spanish crown, the most centralised monarchy in Europe, determined by reasons of devotion and of state to suppress heresy by fire and sword, met the only part of its empire where Protestants were numerous enough to constitute a political force.” Thus two parties, one state: one Catholic eager to retain and extend its power of the crown over local liberties; the other, Protestant led but including Catholic noblemen, resenting any extension of royal power, determined to preserve local traditional liberties, wanting toleration for its faith and now too numerous to suppress despite all that the stake and the scaffold had done.

The absentee ruler, Philip II, had wealth and the strongest military machine of the day. He was determined to unite the Netherlands with their languages and traditions as a Spanish state. To this end he created a new system of smaller dioceses and bishoprics to which he retained the nomination, and in 1565 savagely reinforced the already ferocious decrees against heretics. By then, the opposition in the Netherlands was beginning to identify itself with resistance to religious policy of the king and therefore with the Protestants. Economic misery was overtaken by political crisis. Ecclesiastical reform brought discontent to a head.

In 1566 congregations began to worship in the open fields, sometimes under armed guard and with barricaded approaches. A congregation of 7-8000 met near Ghent, 15,000 near Antwerp, and 20,000 at a bridge near Tournai, a third of whom were armed and the preacher escorted to his pulpit by a hundred mounted troops. Protestant communities were created by courage and conviction of a high order. Francis Junius preached to a meeting in Antwerp while several men were burning in the market place outside and the light from the flames was flickering at the windows of the room.

In circumstances like that, with popular feelings running high, any public event could start a tumult. In August 1566 during a procession to conduct a colossal statue of the Virgin Mary around the streets of Antwerp, a mob broke into the cathedral, an old woman who sat by the door selling candles was mocked and began to throw things, passions ran high and people began to smash the place up. Statues in churches, pictures on the walls, stained glass, vestments, missals, monasteries, all were smashed, torn, sacked in an orgy of destruction. Some prisoners were freed. Protestant pastors struggled to restrain and suppress the lawlessness. The riots divided the people into warring parties. It was civil war. Philip II of Spain resolved to rule by martial law. On 1 December 1566 a Calvinist synod at Antwerp declared armed resistance permissible.


Philip sent the Duke of Alva with 60,000 troops and unlimited powers to force ‘this rebellious and heretical country’ into submission, ‘to punish the guilty with unbending severity’.

Alva established a Council of Tumults, the Bloedraad, usually referred to as the Council of Blood, to try anyone and everyone. Egmont and Hoorn were beheaded in Brussels and their severed heads sent back to Spain in a box. The whole country became a charnel house. Within a few months of Alva’s arrival the terror spiralled out of control: Motley describes “the scaffolds, the gallows, the funeral piles, which have been sufficient in ordinary times, furnished now an entirely inadequate machinery for the incessant executions. Columns and stakes in every street, the door posts of private houses, the fences in the fields, were laden with human carcases, strangled, burned, beheaded. The orchards in the country bore on many a tree the hideous fruit of human bodies”. Alva’s troops, with their remit on their banner, Pro lege, rege, grege, plundered towns and cities and left them drenched in blood.

Inquisition, occupation and taxation: three strands of oppression. On 16 February 1568, the Holy Office condemned the entire population of the Netherlands to death as heretics. “A proclamation of the king, dated ten days later, confirmed this decree of the Inquisition and ordered it to be carried out at once, without regard to age, sex or condition, probably the most concise death warrant ever framed” stated Motley. Three million people, men, women and children, were sentenced to death. This, however, seems to have been beyond even Alva.

Spain moved on. The army conquered, the Church integrated the new overseas territories, the army subjected, the Church controlled and, backed by irresistible force, then proceeded as it always had, to deliver an earthly foretaste of Hell via the Inquisition to those who might question its authority. The cardinal statesmen superseded the warrior archbishops, but the Church continued as a force with which to bind the kingdom together. Treason and heresy were now indistinguishable.

Nothing could divert the spirit of intolerance – until the greatest military machine of all was overwhelmed by the spiralling costs of war. Fighting on several fronts at once without any respite Spain could not save itself or its Habsburg partner. The logistics of supporting an army in the Low Countries became insuperable thanks to the problems of ‘the Spanish Road’. Poner una pica en Flandres, putting a pikeman into Flanders, became Spanish slang for attempting the impossible. “The Habsburg bloc provides one of the greatest examples of strategical overstretch in history.”

 War, the mother of all things, bellum omnium mater, had given birth to the modern world.

The Europe that the Habsburgs thought to bring obediently to heel was already off the leash, politically and economically. Once Philip II’s interest payments to foreign bankers reached over 40 per cent of state revenues, the game was up. When the Spanish tax base became too narrow to support its war effort, it went bankrupt in 1557; the Habsburg dream collapsed and the world economy began. Antwerp would effortlessly achieve economically what the Emperor failed to do politically: gain control of Europe and those areas of the world dependent on the old continent.

Bruegel had died as his country was in open rebellion against Spain. Landscape with the Magpie on the Gallows was painted in the year before he died, a picture that according to Van Mander he left to his wife. It is a picture of the times. A symbol for gossip, was the magpie triumphant or punished? Was Bruegel feeling threatened? To be alive in a sea of malicious rumour, calumny, casual violence and organised murder, who would not? In Vexations of Art Svetlana Alpers asked “What do artists do in wars?.. Why do artists retreat instead of facing up to things?” and goes on “Experience… was not within the range of his preferred figural type”. We shall see. He could not invent anything more extraordinary than what was around him.

Adapt or perish – the message of history

History is made without knowing of its making” Jean-Paul Sartre

IF THERE WAS an air of immobility about the Middle Ages and an air of unreality about the Renaissance, then there was certainly an air of naivety about the ‘age of reason’ following the Reformation. Renaissance humanists had promised sympathetic concordance between reason and faith. But this consensus had not prevailed against the world of religious dogma, magic and superstition. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” says Hamlet. The ability to think for oneself that was the key attainment of the 16th century was supposed to shed ‘the light of reason’ on the darkness of the world.

 That darkness was symbolised by the Church and the unthinking, irrational, dogmatic attitudes with which it had become shrouded. Rival dogmas set up a clash of ideas with little toleration of

rational dialogue on either side. The clash of beliefs, the ferocity of the arguments, the idealism, the bravery and self sacrifice, did not hide the bigotry and intolerance that remained as the world of science, education, politics and philosophy changed, developed and moved on.

The boundless vigour of the Renaissance was failing. Life was still a short interlude before death. People were still obsessed with the afterlife. The fear and insecurity of the medieval world remained constant. Science was inextricably linked to theology throughout virtually all of this period.

There was no separation between physical and spiritual phenomena. The forces of nature, continuous warfare, plague, famine, anarchy and state organised thugs, all added up to a tough time. In a century that wanted to believe, where atheism was not an option, it is very difficult for us to grasp what being exposed to the wrath of God was like in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is dangerous to simplify what is meant to be complex. Dismember a Chinese puzzle or a Rubik Cube and you are left with the pieces, not the puzzle. History is never tidy. It always ends with more questions. Conclusions are much too convenient.

The Renaissance and the Reformation were both outstanding and long-lived cultural revolutions, coming one after the other” and together. “It was already explosive to have reintroduced Greece and Rome to Christian civilisation. To tear apart the seamless robe of the Church was even more earth shaking. Yet in the end the dust settled, everything was absorbed into the existing order and the wounds healed. The Renaissance ended with Machiavelli’s Prince and the Counter-Reformation. The reformation loosed upon the world a more dominant Europe, supremely capitalist.” Revolution in the Netherlands was popular, urban, “a movement that would never have won more than ten per cent of the votes in a democratic election but which by the end of the 16th century had played an indispensable part in the creation of a new player on the European stage”. Calvinist Protestants had a creed and a cause that transcended national frontiers. Theirs became a story of soldiers, volunteers, mercenaries and financiers.

Reformation became a continuous story. The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of change, confusion and conflict for individuals and nations. Religious wars continued and were more than a match for the ideological revolutionary wars of subsequent centuries.

This was a turning point in European civilisation certainly, because it overshadowed a whole series of major changes in the way man viewed the world and himself in it. It shaped the modern world. If these times teach us anything at all, it is the need to remember the message of history – adapt or perish.