Friday, March 11, 2005

Stephen Schwartz attempts to rewrite history

     Here is Schwartz, hinting at the root cause of the Protestant Reformation:

I believe we make a mistake in thinking that historical and social success is determined by religious success; I believe the opposite is true. To me, Protestantism flourished because it took root in nations living on the North Sea where navigation and commerce were impelled by individual initiative, from which Protestant theology, for various reasons, benefited. Spanish Catholicism fell into decline because it conquered the richest provinces of the New World, and the country choked on all that gold and silver.

     Schwartz's assertions are ahistorical, and will be proved wrong.

     Protestantism first took root in Luther's Germany.  After Luther died, its center was Geneva, home of Calvin.  After the Treaty of Speyer, 1554, the North Sea shipping routes seem to be every bit as organized as Mediterannean shipping.  Shipping wasn't "impelled" by individual initiative but by treaty and the desire for profit. 

     By 1561 Protestantism had reached and taken over in the countries where it would eventually rule, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and England.  To be sure, decades of fighting would ensue in some of these countries, most notably the Netherlands.  And, certainly, in the middle of the 17th century, the Gunpowder Plot and the Execution of King Charles had undeniable inter-Christian tensions.  Back in the 16th c., there were constant efforts on the part of the Vatican, using the armies of Spain (formerly the head of the Holy Roman Empire, but after Charles V, simply called the Spanish Monarchy), to quell Lutheran and Calvinist advances.  In the next century the Vatican would embrace a Counter-Reformation, whereby Catholicism itself would attempt some modernization.

     But, although Schwartz claims "Spanish Catholicism choked on her silver," the Spanish Monarchy had barely begun to touch New World silver before 1550.  This chart shows that, except for a brief period after the double default of 1557 (Spain and France, after years of Hapsburg-Valois wars, both declared bankruptcy), the purchasing power and volume of Spanish silver increased until 1600, well after Protestantism had reached, and conquered, its eventual homes.

     In fact, as can be expected, Catholicism lost out because of precisely the kinds of reasons that Luther, Calvin and Zwingli would have noted: the religion had drifted far from Jesus, it had become far more concerned with ritual, hierarchy, grandeur and money than salvation, and it had become tyrannical and oppresive in response to the challenge of the Reformation (e.g. "the Index" of forbidden books, the Spanish and Dutch Inquisitions).

     Protestantism rose because it rejected cloying Catholic rituals, leveraged the printing press, and, under Calvin, became militant, spread surreptitiously (via books written not in Latin, but languages of the people), and had Geneva as continental headquarters.

     I came to the realization that Schwartz appears to be applying Marxist economic determinism, which gives economic forms (capitalism,communism,feudalism) they key role in determining outcomes, to religious history, and at the same time changing Marx, asserting that it is the capitalist form which acheives the best outcome.  A neo-con, certainly.

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