By a strange serendipity, I happened to be cleaning out a huge stack of papers I printed out several years ago (and had never read) shortly after writing the Puritans and Progs draft, and discovered one on the historical relationship of the Arian heterodoxies which Erasmus inspired. It was eerie to discover a paper on this exact subject, waiting for me in a stack I had forgotten. I read it as soon as I could, and I suppose now I should relay my findings.
I should start with the two details I feel a slight reluctance to discuss… reluctance, because each detail will appeal to one discrete audience which will never stop repeating it. But I can’t omit them, because they may be relevant to an odd little fact I touched on in the draft. A huge number of the Arians and Socians were of Spanish or Italian origins; and not only in Spain and Italy proper, but across Europe and especially in Eastern Europe. Why, you ask?
- Conversos. Spain had an enormous number of half-digested Jews, many of whom sought refuge from the Spanish Inquisition by emigrating to other Mediterranean trading-posts, mostly in Italy. So Spain and Italy had unknown numbers of cryptos spreading subversive ideas in this period, plus thousands more who re-judaized after reaching Italy. Most of the Socinian theologians who emerged from Italy came from patrician families, but the heresiarch Michael Servetus was likely a converso, and the Spanish Erasmian Juan de Valdès certainly was. It was apparently Valdès’ Dialogue on Christian Doctrine that led his disciples Bernardino Ochino and Fausto Sozzini to reject the Trinity.
- Thots. Isabella Sforza was left a widow when her husband’s uncle, the famous Ludovico Sforza, usurped the Duchy of Milan. She returned home and set about trying to collect a clique of glittering and impressive figures in her court, as any bored noblewomen would: her collection included Bernardino Ochino.
- She gave her daughter Bona Sforza (a “well-educated” young woman… of course) in marriage to Sigismund (Jagiellon) of Poland. Naturally, Bona took an Erasmian confessor with her to Poland, the start of what was to become a pipeline of heresies and heretics from Italy to the Polish court of Bona Sforza.
- Bona’s daughter Isabella Jagiellon married John Zápolya, Warden of Transylvania, Count of the Székelys, and King of Hungary. (Caveat: Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was pretender to the same crown.) John Zápolya died in 1540, leaving twenty-one year-old Isabella to act as regent for their infant son, John II Sigismund Zápolya. Bona Sforza immediately sent her daughter one of her Italian humanist heretics, Giorgio Biandrata, from Poland to Hungary to advise the young queen and tutor her son. Biandrata extended the pipeline from Poland to Transylvania; and it was Biandrata who ultimately invited the infamous Fausto Sozzini into the principality.
There you have it. The first factor seems to go a long way towards explaining the disproportionate interest among Italians in two niche topics: kabbala and denying the divinity of Christ. The second factor ensnares almost all of the most important Socian theologians, which makes it difficult for us to be certain that they would have gone to Eastern Europe in the first place had they not possessed such influence over the Sforza girls.
Now lets try a more abstract approach to the overarching question, which regions of Europe nurtured the strangest sects during the Reformation?
1. Areas of great religious diversity were already used to various forms of religious coexistence. Even if central authorities wished to police orthodoxy, they had greater difficulty policing insular minorities, and one minority would protect others to resist the principle of official interference. Authorities took conciliatory attitudes towards internal schisms among Christians to maintain public unity against hostile outsiders. Where they successfully suppressed disbelief, this meant taking supposedly-converted infidels into the Christian Church, with unpredictable effects on public order.
a. Spain had only finished the Reconquista in 1491. At that time the Iberian Peninsula had a large population of Jews and Muslims. Castile had adopted its policy of forced conversion exactly 100 years earlier, leading to predictable difficulties with (a) the obstinate minority which refused to convert and (b) the questionable orthodoxy of the conversos. The unification of the peninsula under Christian rule allowed for a fuller imposition of the forced-conversion policy and the expulsion of the remainder of the population. Suspicious neighbors also sporadically expelled conversos on a smaller, regional scale; and given these trying circumstances, many conversos emigrated on their own initiative. But pause and ask, expelled from Spain, emigrated from Spain, yes, but: from Spain to… where? Answer: anywhere Mediterranean commercial ties might lead them, i.e. all over Southern Europe, and especially to the great Italian seaports (but also to Navarre and Holland). When the Reformation arrived, there were thousands of conversos and marranos sprinkled strategically throughout Southern Europe.
b. Eastern Europe had long been the borderlands between the Western Church (including the Western Glagolitic Church), the Eastern Church (in its Greek, Bulgarian, and Slavonic varieties), and the Ottoman Empire. Besides these major populations, the region was strewn with pockets of Jews and even little patches of Muslims and Armenians. (And the adherents of the Western Church in Eastern Europe were a diverse lot themselves: Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, and various flavors of Slav, intricately mixed together.) Nor is that all! Bohemia and its neighbors had been the theater of the Hussite Wars, which had only barely been concluded when the Reformation proper broke out; and old memories die hard.
2. Wherever the temporal power of the Western Church was greatest, suspicion of its hierarchy was deepest.
a. Venice, for example, was traditionally on the front line of any attempt to expand the Papal States up the peninsula; so the Venetians were traditionally skeptical both of theoretical apologies for papal power and of specific demands for jurisdiction. And what do you know: in 1550 humanist theologians held a synod in Venice and issued the ruling that Jesus was a human being. Vincenza, a satellite of Venice, likewise hosted a heterodox group of “Brethren”.
b. Today we associate Prussia with Protestantism, but at the beginning of the Renaissance the Teutonic Knights were likely the single most significant temporal manifestation of the power of the Western Church, greater even than the frequently-humbled Papal States. The Polish nobility made it a habit to evade demands that would only empower their Teutonic enemies. — And since the Hussite wars, the emperor too seemed to become a political instrument of the pope; even entirely orthodox princes were reluctant to help defend a principle of papal supremacy whose enforcement seemed to amount to Hapsburg supremacy.
3. Corruption breeds contempt. The irreligion and hedonism of the popes and cardinals of the Renaissance is legendary; but flat-out corruption among the Western clergy was allegedly greatest in Eastern Europe.