chapter  4
Acts of God: The Confessionalization of Disaster in Reformation Europe
Pages 21

During the religious reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, experiences of disaster had the power both to unite and to further divide populations already often torn apart by confessional confl ict. Popular understanding of why natural disasters in particular happened did not di er markedly from Catholic to Lutheran to Calvinist: God and God alone was the prime mover of nature, and it was His hand that ultimately directed the path of all creation. Natural disaster was therefore widely regarded as a divine call to urgent repentance on the part of sinful humanity, as the end of the world drew ever closer. If the explanations of why natural disasters happened were common across the developing confessions of early modern Europe, what often di ered, however, was the response. Building on aspects of the idea of confessionalization, a thesis which emphasizes the signifi cance of the increasingly close co-operation between secular and religious authorities in Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onwards in the construction of distinctive confessions of faith, this chapter will examine several case studies to suggest that what we, as twenty-fi rst century historians, sometimes force into the category of ‘religious’ responses to disaster were, at the time, by their very nature also often highly political in their intention, meaning, and impact.1 Designed not only to comfort and control the people, the actions of ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the wake of natural disasters in Reformation Europe were also aimed very clearly at reinforcing the distinctive identity of the local community of belief, and with it the strength of the existing spiritual and temporal hierarchy. This chapter will therefore discuss a range of responses to natural disaster that may be seen across the major confessions found in Reformation Europe, including sermons, calls for public prayer and fasting, and religious processions of various type. In part synthesizing for the fi rst time the work of other scholars and indeed other disciplines, including historical seismology, but also drawing on new research on the aftermath of an earthquake that happened near the Swiss Catholic city of Lucerne in 1601, this chapter suggests that, in the choice and content of these responses to disaster, sixteenth-and seventeenth-century ecclesiastical and secular authorities were sending out a potent message of the continued strength

of their faith and their confessional rectitude in the midst of a religiously divided Europe.2