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Secularization, Economics, and Education in the Reformation

If secularization means the liberation of sectors of life from the direct control of the church, many have pointed to the Protestant Reformation as a cause. An impressive new study by Davide Cantoni et al. seeks to quantify the secularizing influence of the Reformation by looking at the expropriation of monasteries as a shock to labor markets, which in turn altered educational choices and redirected resources allocated to construction  (HT: Marginal Revolution and thanks to Paul Matzko for bringing it to my attention). Overall, I’m very happy with this paper, but I want to focus on the statements about education, adding some historical context and making some suggestions as to how this data should be interpreted.

First, here is the abstract:

The Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517, was both a shock to the market for religion and
a first-order economic shock. We study its impact on the allocation of resources between the religious
and secular sectors in Germany, collecting data on the allocation of human and physical
capital. While Protestant reformers aimed to elevate the role of religion, we find that the Reformation
produced rapid economic secularization. The interaction between religious competition
and political economy explains the shift in investments in human and fixed capital away
from the religious sector. Large numbers of monasteries were expropriated during the Reformation,
particularly in Protestant regions. This transfer of resources shifted the demand for labor
between religious and secular sectors: graduates from Protestant universities increasingly
entered secular occupations. Consistent with forward-looking behavior, students at Protestant
universities shifted from the study of theology toward secular degrees. The appropriation of
resources by secular rulers is also reflected in construction: during the Reformation, religious
construction declined, particularly in Protestant regions, while secular construction increased,
especially for administrative purposes. Reallocation was not driven by pre-existing economic
or cultural differences.

I’d like to explain why scholars looking to assess the economics of the Reformation would start their analysis with monasteries. The Catholic Church was based in Rome, but it was one of the largest employers all throughout Europe. In cities with universities or cathedral chapters, up to 10% of the population were clerics. Their aggregate wealth and land holdings were enormous, and they were usually exempt from civil taxes. Indeed, stemming the flow of tax money to the papacy was one of the principal incentives for secular leaders to adopt the Reformation. Several orders were heavily involved in higher education, thus both providing and receiving a significant number of university degrees. So, in summary, the monastic orders provide a natural point to tie together an investigation into the labor force, higher educational choices, and construction.

It’s the second topic of the article I want to look at more closely. The authors posit a secularizing influence in higher education for two reasons: 1) the proportion of specifically religious jobs taken by graduates decreased; 2) the proportion of theology degrees decreased in relation to degrees in arts, law, and medicine. I have no reason to dispute their data, so I’ll let it stand. Further, the early modern period absolutely did see a rise in demand for skilled labor outside the church, so there’s nothing there to contradict. However, the precise way the authors measure secularization may overstate what occurred.

The Protestant Reformation changed the face of education in several ways. First of all, the political and religious fragmentation of Europe never completely severed the international academic community, but it did make studying abroad more difficult, especially at times of peak tension. The effects of this were felt particularly by German-speaking Protestant territories, since specializations at European universities were not evenly distributed. German universities tended to focus on undergraduate education in the arts and secondarily on graduate education in theology. Italian universities, by contrast, tended to be primarily graduate-level institutions focusing on medicine and law. France had universities of both types. So, prior to the Reformation, many Europeans traveled to Germany for an arts education, then elsewhere for graduate work. It’s important to remember that all students had to complete a course in the arts before being allowed access to the other faculties; in this system, arts degrees will always outnumber the others, even combined. So, I wish the authors had excluded arts degrees from their analysis and focused only on the higher faculties.

After the Reformation, Protestant princes naturally wanted to be able to provide in-house graduate training for their aspiring graduates. Thus, the rise of law and medicine degrees awarded by German universities, and consequently the rise in first careers in civil administration or medicine, may not actually reflect secularization as much as the end of the previous regime of outsourcing. To know for sure, we’d have to include French and Italian universities in the search parameters, then search for changes in degrees filtered by place of origin, not place of study. That is, are German-born students getting medical degrees at higher rates, or are they simply staying in the Empire at higher rates? I suspect both are true, but that the results would be less extreme viewed from this angle.

Second, the Reformation brought about an educational revolution along Renaissance humanist lines. Support for widespread reform of higher education had been building for decades, but it was achieved only when powers outside the university itself intervened in order to implement them. The idea that a humanist rather than scholastic education better supported Protestant theology provided powerful motivation for retooling the curriculum. When we look more closely at the changes made, we may find a reason unrelated to secularization for why theology degrees declined.

In the late medieval university, the Bachelor of Arts degree included some training in grammar and rhetoric but was heavily dominated by dialectic. The texts required for promotion were almost all either Aristotle’s logical treatises or medieval commentaries on them. The Master of Arts degree was likewise dominated by Aristotle and commentaries, but the focus there was on mathematics and natural philosophy. Sometimes other courses were offered, but as electives. Theological and biblical training was completely absent from the arts curriculum, reserved for the theology faculty. The narrowness of the curriculum was intentional. The intense focus on formal logic prepared students for the disputatio, the highly regulated form of debate through which late-medieval scholars presented their arguments. Success in the higher faculties depended on one’s ability to triumph in this highly analytical practice.

The humanists had entirely different educational priorities. They wanted the arts curriculum to focus on producing linguistically competent (in Latin and Greek) authors well read in a variety of genres. A gentleman “man of letters” should replace obsessive, hair-splitting logicians. The Protestants combined humanist priorities with their own insistence on teaching directly from the Bible earlier. In 1542 Philipp Bechius, a young man from Basel studying the arts in Wittenberg, wrote a letter back home in which he reported his weekly courses. They included basic mathematics, rhetoric from Cicero, Greek (Homer and Euripides), theology through Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, and lectures on Genesis, the Psalter, and the Gospel of John.

Thus, a Protestant arts student in the mid-sixteenth century had significantly more specifically religious content in his education than any arts student in the fifteenth century. Many Protestant pastors took only arts degrees, rendering the theology degree used primarily for training future professors or as continuing education for ambitious pastors. Therefore, even if theology degrees declined compared to arts degrees, the significance of that for secularization is unclear. Maybe we should count arts degrees from Protestant universities as 25% religious and see how that affects outcomes.

There is another wrinkle related to the data regarding vocational outcomes. In order to cope with massive clergy shortfalls caused by the Reformation, some areas shifted part of the burden for pastoral training away from the universities to newer institutions, called gymnasiums or academies. (This is probably more true of the Swiss Confederation than the Imperial heartlands, so I’m not sure how much to stress this point.) These academies did not grant degrees, but they offered training comparable to a university arts curriculum with a heavy focus on theology and biblical literacy. They thus in some ways resemble modern seminaries. The Reformed churches recruited many of their pastors from these institutions, but the database used by our authors doesn’t include them. So, even if the proportion of arts graduates seeking ecclesiastical careers declined, that may not mean ecclesiastical career seeking declined to the extent the numbers suggest. Some people seeking those careers did so through institutions invisible to the database. However, I don’t think that Lutherans, who had access to more universities than the Reformed did, ever relied too heavily on these institutions, so the academy factor may not be large.

In summary, the analysis offered by our authors and the tools with which they conducted it are very helpful. When it comes to education, the effects of the Reformation are probably more mixed than their line of analysis was able to discover. Careers outside the ecclesiastical realm proliferated, but all degree recipients had to pass through an arts curriculum that included significantly more explicitly religious content. Careers became less religious, but secular careers were more greatly tinged with religion. A similar point could be raised about construction. If a secular prince appropriated funds from a monastery to found a public school, which often happened, and if the duties of that school included catechizing, which they invariably did, that sort of secularization does not necessarily result in less religion. Sometimes, secularization is just religion under new management.

Image result for lutherhaus

The Lutherhaus, originally a home of Augustinian friars, was “secularized” to become Luther’s house, from which he wrote Reformation treatises and in which he boarded pastors in training. Today it is a museum.

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