In 1530, a group of Lutheran princes composed a statement of faith, requesting legal recognition, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Although the Emperor rejected it, the Augsburg Confession would become the statement of belief that defined Lutheranism. Toward the middle of the century, the Catholics followed with their version, the Council of Trent. Indeed, a succession of churches that emerged from the breakup of the monolithic medieval church during the Reformation distinguished themselves through statements of faith that became known as confessions.

Not coincidentally, the Age of Confessionalism is also known as the Age of Religious Wars.

Village Fete by Hans Wertinger
Village Fete by Hans Wertinger (Courtesy State Hermitage Museum Digital Collection)

Gradually, says assistant professor of history Jesse Spohnholz, confessionalism led to separate subcultures within cities, the distinct tenets of fractionalized beliefs determining not simply how they worshipped, but every aspect of people’s lives. Conflict, he says, grew not only out of belief, but from politics, community, family, and identity.

In a general sense, says Spohnholz, confessionalism characterized cultural and religious shifts all across Europe. The French Wars of Religion stretched from the 1560s through the 1590s, spawned by a similar confessional logic. One of the worst manifestations of religious strife was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which Catholics, encouraged by Catherine de Medici and her son King Charles IX, slaughtered thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, gathered in Paris for the wedding of Henry of Navarre. The massacres then spread throughout France.

Similar tensions occurred throughout Spain, though conflict there was more between Muslim and Jewish populations and the prevailing Catholics.

The Holy Roman Empire—including most of today’s Germany, Austria, Bohemia, the Czech Republic, and the Low Countries—was different, says Spohnholz. Led from the court in Vienna by Charles V, the Holy Roman Empire comprised over 200 political entities, including duchies, counties, and knights’ sovereignties. In contrast to more manageable monarchies elsewhere in Europe, the empire presented a constant struggle between the emperor’s claims to power and his inability to consolidate it.

Wesel, a north German town on the Dutch border, far from Vienna, was more different yet. The town’s unusual tolerance and diversity during a time of intolerance and religious war is the subject of a new book by Spohnholz, The Tactics of Toleration: A Refugee Community in the Age of Religious Wars (University of Delaware Press, 2011).

Wesel was a wealthy city on the Rhine with strong autonomy both from the emperor and the duke who claimed sovereignty over it. Although imperial law gave legal status only to Catholics and Lutherans, the magistrates of Wesel could run their city however they wanted. They determined that Wesel would be Lutheran, but in practice allowed all sorts of people into the city, including people fleeing the religious wars that had broken out in the neighboring Low Countries. Because of such unusual political circumstances, says Spohnholz, Wesel became one of the most religiously diverse places in Europe.

Often in our modern period, says Spohnholz, we tend to think of premodern people as strictly obedient to the king and loyal to the church.

“That’s what princes and political leaders would have liked to have believed,” he says. What he found in his study of Wesel is a much more diverse and tolerant approach.

“I found there were a lot more attitudes that allowed peaceful coexistence between people of competing faith despite the rhetoric of their leaders.”

The people of Wesel were able to coexist because their sense of Christian piety and unity in the end outweighed their confessional differences. Spohnholz’s conclusions highlight “the essential role of individual choices in shaping the confessional landscape of early modern Wesel. The fact that Wesel did not fit the patterns of confessionalization is not merely a result of widespread resistance to a top-down effort to enforce religious conformity, though it surely is part of the picture. But it was also a result of the variety of decisions that residents of Wesel made about the ways in which they would express their religious identity.”

In other words, says Spohnholz, the people of sixteenth-century Wesel were far more complex than we tend to believe from our modern perspective.

Although many studies of Wesel have preceded Spohnholz’s, they are generally oriented toward very different stories, he says, stories of the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism, a “long narrative that generally involves good guys winning.

“But not a lot of serious scholarly attention to the city itself.”

Modern secular scholarship tends to explain religious toleration in terms of rationality and political and economic advantage, he says. Political power, economic success, and rationality lead to peace, whereas faith leads to violence.

“That assumption, which underpins a lot of explanations about why you get peace, lacks explanatory power to me,” says Spohnholz.

In fact, he finds this explanation simplistic and condescending to people in the past.

“It also depends on certain assumptions of what religion is, privileging leaders of faith without considering the practitioners. Critical to my methodology has been to divorce as much as possible the authoritative claims of religious and political authorities from the actual actions of ordinary people.”

Those actions are often based on a sense of common piety, he says. One’s neighbor may take the Mass wrong, but he’s decent to his family.

Indeed, the bulk of Spohnholz’s research and insight into sixteenth-century Wesel come not from officially nuanced history, but from public records.

Spohnholz scoured city records, marriage records, baptism records.

“I started by cataloging names of people who were buried, who married and had children. I created a database and cross-referenced everything.”

And patterns started emerging. Patterns of who married whom, what people named their children, and so forth.

Then he delved into church archives, into the records of Calvinist church council and official records of Lutheran ministers, their correspondence and petitions.

Calvinist church authorities would call people in for doctrinal and moral infractions. Someone cheats on his wife, he is called before the council to apologize, reconcile with his wife, and repent.

“Church financial records turned out to be really cool,” says Spohnholz. “There is no commentary, but there’s a discrepancy between what people say about religion and what they are doing.”

In essence, what Spohnholz found in his study of Wesel was the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

“What was important about Wesel is there wasn’t much violence or conflict in a world that was rocked by it. There was no important treaty there, no major offensive. It was just people sitting down like you and I managing to have a civil society.”