Transnational anti-Catholicism in Early Modern Europe (1520-1750)?

The current trend in the study of anti-Catholicism is to approach the topic from a transnational perspective. Put simply, this means that the phenomenon of anti-Catholicism in a given country at a given moment is now increasingly seen to be less the result of specific factors in that country at that moment and more the result of historical forces which were pan-, or trans-,national. Scholarship is most advanced in the study of the nineteenth century, where it is noted that the spike in anti-Catholicism in many European and Atlantic countries in the mid-century was not coincidental but due to a convergence of common, pan-national factors. These included: Papal Aggression (1850-51); the culture wars; the Italian Risorgimento (1815-71); and the prevalence of Irish immigration, which not only made Catholicism more numerous and visible in countries where it had previously been in the minority, but spread Irish sectarianism to new territories. These events and processes were not unique to any one country. They were resolutely transnational and, as such, the anti-Catholicism which they stimulated must also be interpreted as transnational in causation and in character.

The purpose of the blog-post is to consider whether them same might be said of the early modern period. There are, of course, a series of complicated questions about the relationship which historians should adopt between national and transnational perspectives. Once we have characterised an historical process as transnational, what do we do to ascertain the significance of that characterisation? Might we run the danger of losing nuance (“this was happening everywhere”)? Events and processes may be common across Europe/the Atlantic, but it does not follow that they were not experienced or interpreted in ways which were distinct in each national territory, or that their significance in those territories were not unique. Pointing to a historical phenomenon being “transnational”, then, is not to deny that it might also be “national”, too. The close relationship between anti-Catholicism and national identity in countries with a strong Protestant heritage captures this paradox neatly: many countries styled themselves as the “Protestant Nation” through an anti-Catholic discourse which was resolutely trans-national in origin, style, and content.

One of the most useful things which has emerged from this network is how fruitful the transnational approach to anti-Catholicism has been. We have discussed the extent to which the perspective is applicable and useful for other periods. The early modern period (roughly 1520-1750 for the purposes of this subject) is a perplexing one in this regard: is the anti-Catholicism common in multiple countries in the wake of the Reformation usefully described as “transnational”? If so, how might this affect our approach to anti-Catholicism as a central ideology of British history which this network is designed to investigate? The problem is central to the project: is the phenomenon which we are studying distinctly “British” in any meaningful sense? If not, what effect does this have on our understanding of the role(s) of anti-Catholicism in British history? What follows is very much a thinking piece in which I try to pull together some ideas on this topic. Everything which follows is tentative.

To unpick the applicability of the label “transnational” to the early modern period requires us to gauge what the label actually means. It has been used in very different ways to very different ends, some of which are readily applicable to the phenomenon of anti-Catholicism and some of which are not. In its loosest sense, transnational history recognises that the history of one nation is shaped by events and processes occurring in others. We can surely recognise that this is true of early modern anti-Catholicism. A range of events in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the assassinations of William of Orange in 1584 and of Henry IV of France in 1610, and Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 – took on an international perspective and significance. In Britain such actions were presented as typical of “popery” and in this sense events in one European region were integral in shaping how another viewed its Catholic citizens, characterised the “threat” of Catholicism as international, and understood its own position in Europe. This was highly significant. In a culture in which printed news became an increasingly European phenomenon, the spread of information and perspectives about events in other territories became a common feature of British national culture. Much of the opprobrium directed at James VI and I and Charles I as “popish” monarchs, for example, was directly linked to their failure to act as champions of protestantism on the international stage during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Knowledge of the events in that war – and its perceived importance to Britain – was crucial in shaping anti-Catholic sentiments. On this definition, we can indeed see that early modern anti-Catholicism contained elements which are usefully described as transnational.

Transnational approaches to history have also highlighted the importance of movement – of persons, goods, and ideas – as a crucial stimulus in history. To return to the nineteenth century, we can see that the movement of Irish Catholic migrants around the Atlantic world was crucial in stimulating rising anti-Catholicism in the mid-century. This phenomenon was not unique to any one nation, but cut across many. Equally significant were bestselling novels and accounts of atrocities committed in monasteries and convents, best captured in narratives of cruelty surrounding Maria Monk. These moved between audiences, crossed national boundaries, and were translated into multiple languages to disseminate commonplace anti-Catholic tropes and motifs. The central anti-Catholic attitude of the culture wars – that Roman Catholicism was a medieval and archaic brake on progress and liberalism – was also common across multiple national boundaries. To reiterate: anti-Catholicism grew in the nineteenth century to a large degree (but not exclusively) as a result of forces, events, and the movement of ideas across national boundaries.

This was true in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, too. Although by no means as developed as the nineteenth century, the printed and public spheres grew exponentially during the early modern period. As such, the translation and transportation of texts from one nation to many others was commonplace. This was highly significant during the Reformation. Here the polemical models employed against the Catholic Church, theological disputes between Catholic and Protestant, and re-interpretation of medieval history to paint the Roman Church as Antichrist in Revelation all relied on the exchange of ideas, evidence, and materials between protestant churches across Europe. “Anti-Catholicism” as a literature was decidedly transnational from its inception in the protest against the Catholic Church in the 1520s. The perspective of this literature was also not national. Rather, it foreground “the Church” as the main point of perspective. The battle between Catholic and Protestant in Reformation polemic well into the seventeenth century was predominantly between “True Church” and “False Church” as outlined in Revelation. Members of those churches were not exclusive to one territory and texts like John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563) – while received as a patriotic text or keystone of national identity in later centuries – were conceived as advocates of an international Protestantism rather than an exclusively English one. Particular nations might be given prominent roles at particular moments in this eschatological emplotment of human history against Revelation’s divine schema, but the Reformation was not primarily understood as a national event in historical and polemical writing.

Recognising this is important. Indeed, the early modern period would benefit enormously from a study of the passage of anti-Catholic stereotypes, motifs, and materials across regional boundaries in systematic detail comparable to Lisa Dittrich’s path-breaking monograph on the nineteenth century. The problem which this would leave us with is easily definable: where does the national perspective sit in all of this? Anti-Catholicism was undoubtedly common (and commonplace) to much of European, American, and (as the centuries progressed) colonial territories. But a cursory examination of source material for each of these territories reveals very quickly how immediately each nation or group felt anti-Catholicism to be about them. Writing a history of the subject which recognised both that anti-Catholicism was transnational in scope, form, and rhythm, and had a particular iteration in different territories is a difficult, but necessary, task. There is a danger that transnational perspectives might flatten historical and regional differences. For the early modern period we might ask whether the “British” aspects of anti-Catholicism in Britain become lost when we recognised that the ideology was prevalent across Europe and early America.

The centre-point of anti-Catholicism for most of the early modern period – that the papacy was Antichrist prophesised in Revelation and 2 Thessalonians – provides a very useful example with which to think through this problem. Although huge variations existed in details depending on the polemical agenda of the author, treatments of Antichrist shared several common features. That Catholic Church as the false church in Revelation was an historical phenomena through which Antichrist did its work on earth. As such, Catholicism was an image of evil which crossed boundaries – both time (it unfolded across a millennium of history) and space (it was present in all territories in which the Catholic Church was active and those who had only “half-reformed” after the Reformation). Antichrist (and “popery”, its manifestation in history) was first and foremost diffuse. Its malleability and mutability was a key to its power. This, above all else, made the Catholic Church so potent as a source of conspiracy theory: no-one was safe from its clutches, and even Protestant territories which had nominally ‘escaped’ it might be re-corrupted. Reading history through Revelation, then, suggested that popery was a problem without boundaries. This clearly lends itself to a transnational perspective for the early modern period. And yet Revelation was also a source of nascent national identities through which various territories styled themselves as “the Protestant Nation”. The battle with popery was common to all Protestants as members of a pan-national True Church. But specific events in their national history suggested that their people were more favoured than others, or that they were more important in defeating Antichrist during the last days. Such events became part of the mythos on which all national identities rest. In this way a transnational phenomenon took on uniquely national characteristics.

What we have, then, is a contradiction. Anti-Catholicism and national identity became increasingly tied in the early modern period. But they did so, oddly, as a result of transnational encounters. What does this tell us? That the “national” and “transnational” perspectives are not mutually exclusive approaches to the past nor contradictory historical forces – in both cases the relationship between them is complementary. The transnational perspective on history is richest when it recognises the importance of the local, but situates developments in that local in a broader context. “British” approaches to anti-Catholicism in the early modern period must do just that: only by recognising the elements of anti-Catholicism which were common across borders can we appreciate what aspects were unique in a given period and region.

The constitutional crises of the seventeenth century – the Civil Wars, Exclusion Crisis (1678-83) and Revolution of 1688/9 – provide excellent examples. As Jonathan Scott has shown, each was driven in part by anti-Catholicism. But that anti-Catholicism was itself shaped by an acute awareness of events taking place in Europe: the Thirty Years’ War and the absolutism of Louis XIV being crucial examples. For seventeenth century British people, “popery” was a European and global problem. The reaction to that problem – anti-popery – while certainly sharing common elements with anti-Catholicism in other Protestant countries, was tied to specific political and cultural moments in Britain. Anti-Catholicism was at once transnational in scope, form, and language, and national in its iteration.