March/April 2008


Migration and movement of scholars - A study in the history of diffusion of knowledge (Part 2)

By F. Habashi

Religious Schism and the Persecution of Reformers

In ancient times, all persons within the state might be required to pay formal homage to the god of the state. Those who protested and refused to perform these religious rites were considered disorderly elements. In Roman times, Jews, and later Christians, were persecuted because they worshipped their own god. It was Emperor Constantine who granted religious freedom in 313 AD by signing the Edict of Milan. The division of the Roman Empire became permanent when Constantine moved his capital to what became known as Constantinople. Gradually, Christianity became the state religion and all those who did not follow the teachings of the Church were considered heretics and were persecuted.

The first schism started with the different concepts about the nature of Christ, which resulted in the split of the Oriental churches. Then came the antagonism between Latin-speaking Catholics in the West and Greek-speaking Catholics in the East. It grew steadily more acute, reaching a peak when Byzantine Emperor Leo III (680-740) ordered the removal of images of the saints from churches. Riots against this policy ensued throughout Italy, but the policies of the emperors’ successors were even more harsh. The hatred between the two camps continually widened the breach. The sack of Byzantine Constantinople by Roman Catholic Crusaders followed in 1204.

The popes in Rome interfered in world politics by supporting the kings of France against the English kings and the Holy Roman emperors of the German Nation. In 1309, King Philip IV of France engineered the election of a Frenchman to the papacy who took the name Clement V (1264-1314), set his residence in Avignon and was completely under control of the king. After his death, the new pope, Gregory XI, another Frenchman, decided to return to Rome in 1376 to escape an English attack on Avignon. After his death there was another split in the Catholic Church, which became known as the Great Schism.

There was pressure from the Italian population on the cardinals to choose an Italian pope. The newly elected pope, Urban VI, an Italian, refused to return to Avignon. As a result a new set of cardinals chose Clement VII (1478-1534), a Frenchman, as pope who took up residence in Avignon. For 40 years there were two popes, each taxing all of Christendom, each excommunicating the other and each commanding the allegiance of separate kings.

In the meantime the church in Rome accumulated great wealth and became authoritarian. Any reformers who criticized the Church were considered heretics. The Oxford scholar and reformer John Wyclif (1328-1384) was condemned in 1380 as a heretic. Jan Huss (1369-1415), rector of the University of Prague and a follower of Wyclif, attacked abuses of clergy and wanted religious reform. He also was considered a heretic, was excommunicated by the Pope and was burned at the stake in 1415. His followers in Bohemia and Moravia demanded freedom of preaching. Between 1419 and 1436, the armed conflict that became known as the Hussite War between the Hussite Czechs and the Catholic Germans was both religious and national in nature.

In 1453, Constantinople was captured by the Turks and renamed Istanbul, and the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end. Byzantine scholars who fled the city were dispersed all over Italy and were responsible for the beginning of the Renaissance there. Less than 40 years later, Queen Isabelle of Castile, known as Isabelle the Catolica, conquered the Moors at Granada in 1492 and expelled the Moslems and the Jews from her kingdom. Displaced scholars settled in North Africa, others were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, while others migrated to South America.

In Wittenberg, Saxony, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged the authority of the Pope and in 1521 was found guilty of heresy at the Diet of Worms. However, he managed to escape persecution. His followers later became known as Protestants. In 1540, with the permission of the Pope, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) founded the Society of Jesus, which became known as the Jesuits, to counteract the Protestants. In 1542, a Roman Inquisition, a church court that could call to trial any Catholic in Christendom, was founded.

In 1533, the reformer Jean Cauvin, known by the Latinized name Calvin (1509-1564), fled France to Basel, Switzerland, to escape persecution. Calvinism characterized the covenanters in Scotland, the Puritans in England and the Protestants in France, known as Huguenots. Students in universities fiercely debated the new religious ideas. Books banned by the Pope were burned in many European cities. A few months after Luther’s death, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, turned his might against the Lutherans of Germany. For nine years his soldiers tried to bring them into submission and into the old Church of the Pope, but without success. In the Peace of Augsburg (1555) it was agreed that henceforth two churches would be allowed; the division became permanent in Europe.

In England, the conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope resulted in bloody massacres between Catholics and Protestants until Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 and established the Anglican Church, which was a mixture of Lutheran, Calvinism and Catholic. However, during the rule of her successor, James I, the religious conflict continued, forcing many to leave for Holland. In 1620, the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims, who were seeking religious freedom, to New England in America. In 1688, William Henry, Prince of Orange, invaded England to restore Protestantism.

In France, however, the dispute between the Huguenots and Catholics exploded in 1562 into a civil war that raged for 36 years. The war ended in 1598 when Henri IV came to the throne and granted liberty of conscience by the Edict of Nantes. However, his grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the edict in 1685 and, as a result, thousands fled to escape persecution. In the Spanish Netherlands, the Wars of Religion dragged on for 80 years between 1568 and 1648. The new governor, Duke of Alva, executed 18,000 people including Count Egmont, who protested against the massacre of the Protestants. Incidentally, during this period, the Bernoulli family, that produced nine distinguished mathematicians, escaped Holland to settle in Basel, Switzerland.

During the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612), Protestants were persecuted. The conflict continued with the involvement of the Protestant kings Christian IV of Denmark and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. This ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. But, later on, the hostilities between Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria was manifested in the wars of 1740-1748 and 1756-1763. In the meantime, the conflict between the papacy and the absolute monarchs of Catholic Europe forced Pope Clement XIV to dissolve the Society of Jesus in 1773.

In the Moslem world the situation was not much different. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632, Abu Bakr became his successor, followed by Omar and Othman. During this time, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Persian Empire were conquered; however, abuses by officials under Othman caused an uprising of the people and the assassination of the caliph. Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was elected as fourth caliph, but Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, with several of his companions, opposed him. Civil wars led to the assassination of Ali in 661 and Mu’awiya became the sole ruler of the Islamic world. He was able to ensure that his son Yazid would become his successor as a hereditary king. Since that time, the Moslem world became divided into two camps: the followers of Ali became known as “Shia” and the followers of Mu’awiya as “Sunni.”

After Yazid died, the members of Mu’awiya’s clan, known as Umayyads, ruled until 750. During the Umayyad Dynasty, the capital of the Islamic state was Damascus, which for many centuries was an important centre of Greco-Roman culture. But corruption crept in and discontent became widespread. The Abbasids rose to power and massacred the Umayyads. They established their capital in Baghdad and the centre of the empire shifted from Damascus to Baghdad.

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