Internet Shakespeare Editions


The Counter-Reformation

In this example of Catholic propaganda, the Pope holds his ears while Calvin and Luther battle, with the Bible as one of the weapons.

Martin Luther began by intending to reform the church from within; there were many who resisted the Reformation, but who sought reform of the Catholic church: for example Erasmus, whose translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin started many of the changes.


Under the pressure of the success of Lutheranism and Calvinism with the common people, reformers within the Church made many changes; among others, they created two orders of monks, the Capuchins ("hooded ones" -- reformed Fransiscans) and the new order of the Jesuits (members of the Society--or company, in the military sense--of Jesus), who became active preachers and missionaries.

In England, the Jesuits were feared, largely because of their formidable training, dedication, and a reputation for clever casuistry*. A mission of Jesuits landed in 1580 led by an eloquent scholar and preacher, Edmund Campion (later canonized by the church); Campion was eventually caught and hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Was reform achieved?*.


  1. Jesuits at the gate

    The Porter in Macbeth, admitting various damned souls to an imaginary hell, welcomes an "equivocator"--a Jesuit, who "could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven" (2.3.8-11).

  2. Reform, at a price

    After a number of false starts, an ecumenical council of the Catholic church was called at the independent town of Trent in 1545; the Council continued intermittently for eighteen years, and made far-reaching decisions about the aims, organization, and teachings of the Church.

    Many of the abuses of the Church-- indulgences, simony--which Luther and others had attacked were dealt with; requirements for the education of priests were stiffened; points of doctrine were clarified and justified; and the responsibilities of Church administrators were spelled out.

    The dark side of the Counter-reformation was the new life it gave the Inquisition and an increased persecution of what was seen as heresy--as thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of women discovered in witch trials. Intellectual freedom was severely curtailed (see Galileo, for example).