Everything in history begins before where we think it begins,
and ends after where we think it ends.¹
Nicolás Gómez Dávila
I recently visited Waterloo, Belgium, in order to learn about the events of June 1815. I knew very little of the battle and its significance before this visit; indeed, all I knew was that it was a bad day for Napoleon. Obviously, there is much greater significance to it. As I walked the ground, visited the museums, and listened to our tour guide, I began to wonder, “Was this the last battle of the enlightenment?” The French Enlightenment was a philosophical shift that led to Napoleon’s rise to power and the casting off of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church as ultimate authorities in France.
I posed my question to our guide, a very well-versed retired British Brigadier. He paused and said that it was a good question that he would have to get back to later. Unfortunately, in the hustle and bustle of a short tour with many participants, the opportunity to re-engage him on this topic did not arise.
As I ponder the question with my own knowledge of history, it seems that Waterloo was in fact the last battle triggered by the reformation. Though many historians link the enlightenment to the scientific revolution, at least in part because they want to promote the idea of reason triumphing over what they view as superstition (religion), I don’t think it’s nearly so clear cut.
When Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Cathedral door in 1517, he was not the first to attempt to incite reformation within the church. Luther’s actions, however, occurred at a time of upheaval on many fronts. In 1492, Columbus revealed that what we thought we knew about the geography of our planet might not be entirely accurate. Just two years later, Ferdinand Magellan set out on his expedition which resulted in the first circumnavigation of the world. And around 80 years earlier in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg laid what I think is the key piece to the scientific, religious, political, and philosophical upheavals that followed—a printing press using movable type.
What followed over the next few centuries was upheaval both on the Continent and in England. A series of wars followed the schism Luther ultimately led, culminating in the Thirty Years War which devastated much of Germany. In England, the Reformation began (formally) on more political grounds in 1527 with Henry VIII requesting an annulment from Pope Clement VII. The eventual severing of the Church of England from Rome then gave room for religious reformers to advance their agenda, which led to a series of conflicts and purging as Protestant and Catholic monarchs took the throne. In 1558, the Elizabethan Settlement provided some resolution, but the English Civil War (1642-1651) was a continuation of these tensions.
Meanwhile, France was mostly insulated from these religious upheavals and remained loyal to the Catholic Church of Rome until the Enlightenment (1715-1789). With upheavals taking place all around her, the ideas of challenging the church and political orders could not help but eventually bleed across the French frontier.
Just as the Radical Reformers on the Continent and the Puritan Separatists in England believed the previous “reform” movements had not gone far enough, the French Enlightenment sought to go further by casting off the monarchy and the Church. The French Revolution did just that and led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France. Napoleon’s subsequent attempts at conquest wrought destruction across Europe from Spain to Russia.
Though Napoleon was eventually driven from power and exiled on the island of Elba, he escaped, regained power in France, and amassed another army. He set out toward Brussels hoping to win a quick victory over the coalition forces in order to gain a position of power from which to negotiate. He nearly succeeded, but due to a number of factors, the French were defeated at Waterloo and Napoleon retreated to Paris. He was ultimately exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he later died.
Following the Battle of Waterloo, there were about 100 years of peace on the Continent. The upheavals begun by the Protestant Reformation seem to have finally worked themselves out. The next series of major conflicts—both World Wars—would be fueled by different ideologies than a Protestant-Catholic struggle.
¹ Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 443