As conventional wisdom has it, Europe began to see the light at the end of a dark age sometime around 1500. Four experts try to date the birth of modernity.
‘The medieval persists’: stained glass depicting two minstrels c.1885, attributed to James Egan, a former employee of William Morris. Art Institute of Chicago.
As a historian of Reformation Germany, I’m duty bound to say that the medieval period ended on 31 October 1517, the day on which Martin Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Luther’s protest against the practices of the Catholic Church led to the splintering of western Christendom, to more than a century of religious warfare and, via some very circuitous routes, to the rise of religious toleration. Moreover, the German Reformation came of age alongside the printing press.
Of course, things weren’t that simple. Luther’s protest crystallised resentments that had been brewing for decades and there was much about his Reformation that was profoundly medieval. The deeply conservative Luther did not challenge the social or political status quo; that was left to his unruly spiritual offspring, the radical reformers. And it was not the newly formed Protestant churches but Catholic religious orders that shaped the other defining event of the age: European exploration and conquest.