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Mapping Reformation Europe

Maps convey simple historical narratives very clearly–but how useful are simple stories about the past? Many history textbooks and studies of the Reformation include some sort of map that claims to depict Europe’s religious divisions in the sixteenth century. Some of these maps show Catholic as opposed to Protestant states marked out in distinct colours. Other maps distinguish between varieties of Protestantism and show rival colours for Lutheran and Calvinist (and sometimes also Anglican) territories. Other maps attempt to present a more complex image of Europe’s religious demography with blobs of different colours showing the presence of minority groups within states. Some maps also provide a range of different colours to depict where Anabaptist, Antitrinitarian, Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Hussite, Muslim and Jewish Europeans lived. Some maps show states that offered legal rights to more than one religion and regions with a mixed religious demography using multi-coloured stripes or overlapping blotches of different colours. The viewer might well be drawn to worry that such places would be unlikely to enjoy peace and stability until they could match the comforting monochrome of their neighbours.

How helpful are these maps in depicting the reality of lived religion after the Reformation? Comparing maps in different books quickly reveals startling inconsistences and inaccuracies. Placing these maps alongside one another only leads to confusion as religious communities appear in different locations for no apparent reason. Even the more accurate maps struggle to represent in any meaningful way the dynamic and fluid character of religious life in Reformation Europe. How could any map precisely chart the place of different religious communities in France or the Netherlands across the middle decades of the sixteenth century? Or what colour scheme could be deployed to show exactly where Utraquists, Bohemian Brethren, Lutherans and Catholics lived in the Czech lands?

The religious situation in Europe about 1560, The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

These maps also tend to present a number of entirely misleading impressions to viewers. For example, maps convey the notion that all Protestants (or Lutherans or Calvinists) belonged to a single European community marked in the same colour while ignoring divisions both between and within these traditions. Maps can also bolster the notion that the religious frontiers of Europe were determined by state borders and the legal powers of monarchs. The Reformation was never a process determined only by those who held political power. The presence of minority communities is often overlooked or under-represented. Many people worshipped in churches or in homes despite the lack of any legal right to do so. Even where communities outwardly conformed to a state church, turning “Catholics” into “Lutherans” was for example a very slow and individualised process of spiritual and cultural persuasion.

Religious balance of Europe at the end of the 16th century. CortoFrancese, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

State borders also offer entirely unreliable markers in many contexts of where a Protestant world ended and a Catholic world began. Local people in borderlands proved adept at turning circumstances to their advantage- travelling across borders to attend their church of choice, or using liminal spaces to ignore the demands of all priests and ministers. Religious identities were framed by royal decrees and state borders, by linguistic communities, and also by individual decisions taken within neighbourhoods and families. Over time, the combined and consistent efforts of state authorities and clergy hierarchies could enforce uniform religious practice and instil a clear sense of collective religious identity in communities living within stable boundaries. However, the notion that people of different religions mostly lived apart from one another simply never came into existence in many areas across Europe. We should not be fooled by maps into underestimating the degree to which Protestant and Catholic societies remained intertwined sometimes in relative peace and sometimes leading to outbreaks of communal violence.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we might do well to doubt the capacity of maps to offer any sort of reliable depiction of Europe’s religious life. Or, at least, viewers might be drawn by such maps into thinking about the porosity and rigidity of borders, the particular nature of borderlands, about shared spaces and contested spaces, about overlapping identities and rival identities, and about the complex ways in which individuals, families and communities related to churches and states, and about the role of ordinary European women and men as well as kings, princes, bishops and reformers in shaping the character of being a “Catholic” or a “Lutheran” or a “Calvinist” or a “Protestant” after the Reformation.

Featured Image credit: Europe around 1560, The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Heather Poirier

    Really interesting points made. Could digital mapmakers be of help? NB: I am not one of those.

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