Europe in the aftermath of the Medieval period was a world bounded to the church. Not only were the souls of the peoples of western civilization controlled by the clergy, but so were their pocketbooks and their thoughts. The Roman Catholic Church had a monopoly on religion and in-turn, a monopoly over Medieval Europe. Great periods of change, of thought, of rebirth were to hit the continent: Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Medieval Europe was to be transformed into the land of the enlightened philosophes; no longer a civilization trapped in a period of dogma and oppression, but a civilization on the path to reason, liberty, equality.

To become a freer, more just society, Europe would need to get out from under the heavy hand of the Roman Catholic Church. With its power, the church had gained wealth by use of tithe, indulgences and possessing huge tracts of land. The accumulation of wealth by the church was an egregious abuse of power to many, but their skepticism and contempt was further exacerbated by the sale of church offices and nepotism. One man had had enough of these abuses the church practiced openly; Martin Luther began to openly criticize the church beginning with the nailing of the thesis to the cathedral door. Luther sparked the fire that was the Reformation, but it was the work of men like John Calvin that fueled the flames. Calvin preached hard work and obedience, one's only chance of gaining salvation. These principles are key to the formation of nation states, the concepts behind capitalism and a more peaceful society in the future. Many found an inner joy in the Calivist teaching of predestination; believing they were on a path to heaven and without the safety net of indulgences, Calvinists attempted to lead lives not of iniquity and bound by church teachings, but lives of societal advancement through exploration of the world and themselves. With this great split in the church there came a shift of wealth, power and ideas that initiated many of the major advancements in the centuries to come.

Luther started the reformation in Germany in 1517 while others like Calvin moved it north and west across Europe. By 1536, Henry VIII made Protestantism into a movement of the entire nation. Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England and in doing so took power from the Pope, making his power absolute in England, while also taking back partitions of land which he then distributed to the lesser nobility. By gaining power, with the consent of Parliament, while also satisfying the lesser nobility, Henry had made the stronger factions within the country content. As a side effect of annulling his marriage by making himself head of the church, Henry VIII brought the ideas of the Reformation to his country. After the English Revolution of the early seventeenth century, the seeds planted by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century germinated. The concepts of Protestantism were instilled in the people: hard work, the path to salvation is within one?s self and more of a focus on the here and now. Now there was a model for other nations to follow, power checked by a constitution, limited power of the clergy and a spirit of exploration and social acceptance of the accumulation of wealth.

A far cry from the constitutional monarchy of England was the absolutism practiced by the Bourbon kings of France. Louis XIII, with the help of Cardinal Richelieu, consolidated the power of France at the expense of the power of the nobles. During the reign of the absolute monarchs, from 1610 through the reign of Louis XVI, France underwent a period of political growth. The word of the king was the only word, his power derived from God, was the basis of absolutism. The concept of absolutism was not long lived due to the abuses absolute power fosters. With little religious toleration, no constitution limiting the monarchy's power, angst ridden nobility, poor tax collection, lavish life styles of those at court, France was made ripe for change. All of these abuses coupled with religious teachings and social attitudes that inhibited mercantilism and other forms of overseas' wealth brought misery to the people of France and inspired the philosophes of the Enlightenment.

France did experience a period of wealth and power, but soon foreign wars and inflated prices left many grief ridden citizens of France. From this hotbed of strife came the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. No longer would the thinkers make reason in line with dogma. Reason and reason alone governed their worlds. A shift occurred in thought from pre-Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes who saw absolute power of the government and the evils of man as key, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke placed faith back in man, equality, liberty and freedom were now fundamental. The Enlightenment is a culmination of the split from the church and their monopoly on thought, new forms of oppressive government, nobility seeing their power taken by the despots of Europe, the ideas of Humanism and Renaissance teachings finally being brought to the masses through literature. The gains of the Enlightenment were seen in a new found skepticism of the thinkers and the public, collections of knowledge such as the Encyclopedia, a new emphasis placed on reason instead of revelation and through this skepticism and use of reason the foundation of a new society based on natural rights, freedom and equality was built.

The beginnings of the Modern Era start with the Renaissance, people looking around and questioning the world around them. The Modern Era is marked by a transition to a more secular world, freed from the oppressive nature of the church. Constitutional forms of government are founded in England and the United States while revolution brews elsewhere. Without the secularism of the Renaissance thinkers, the revolutionary teachings of the Reformation and the reason of the philosophes Europe would still be in the Dark Ages.

Notes: This was originally a paper I wrote for a Western Civ course from notes and information contained in Western Civilization: A Brief History, By Perry