In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Toleration

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • The Middle Ages
  • Confessionalism and Confessionalization
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • European Expansion Overseas

Renaissance and Reformation Toleration
Jesse Spohnholz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0109


The history of religious toleration has long been dominated by Whiggish historiography, which focuses on identifying the origins of modern values and institutions. Whig historians often identified toleration as a positive value that had its origin in European intellectual traditions, especially among English and Protestant thinkers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. While some intellectual historians emphasize the period of the Enlightenment in spreading religious toleration, considerable scholarship points to contributions in the Renaissance and Reformation. Some look to Renaissance traditions of humanism and skepticism, while others point to the breakup of Christianity following the Reformation as forcing some Europeans to develop justifications for toleration. Some critics of this approach have studied advocates of toleration in the Middle Ages. Others have moved away from the history of ideas and emphasized that legal frameworks for religious toleration, such as the 1598 Edict of Nantes in France or the 1648 Peace of Westphalia in the Holy Roman Empire, were only adopted begrudgingly after persuasion, coercion, and open warfare proved unsuccessful at resolving religious conflicts. More recently, social and cultural historians have promoted a revisionist perspective that highlights that individuals learned to coexist often even in the absence of philosophical theories or legal frameworks to legitimize toleration. The result has been an increasing interest in the daily practices of toleration. Much of this scholarship has focused on coexistence between members of competing Christian churches (also called confessions), but some have also included studies of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The breadth of this scholarship has continued to expand to include Europeans’ contact with and ideas about non-Christians and non-Europeans. Within Europe, local and biographical studies have examined the contingent and diverse nature of forms of toleration and coexistence. Considerable recent scholarship has highlighted the extent to which the permeability of religious boundaries helps explain forms of pluralism and toleration. Thus, despite the polarizing and exclusivist rhetoric of clergy, blurry, permeable, and ambiguous views toward faith and the supernatural are now often cited as essential to understanding toleration and the practices of coexistence in the Renaissance and Reformation.

General Overviews

Until the mid-20th century, scholarship on the history of toleration was largely the purview of Whiggish historians. Generally, this literature emphasized a progressive shift from the intolerance of the Middle Ages, to the transitional periods of the Renaissance and Reformation, culminating with the emergence of toleration as a defining feature of modernity from the late 17th century. Among the single-authored books recommended are leading representatives of Whiggish scholarship. These works, such as Jordan 1932–1940, emphasize Protestant and English intellectual contributions to the development of modern toleration. Also recommended are important critiques of this tradition. Whiggish history was first critiqued in 1931; see Butterfield 1965. In the 1960s, Kamen 1967 and Lecler 1960 acknowledged Catholic tolerationists as well as Protestants who were fundamentally intolerant, though both generally retained the same narrative of a transition from intolerance to toleration. Guggisberg 1983 offers a useful typology of arguments for toleration from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Zagorin 2003 is among the most recent authors who emphasize the spread of tolerationist ideas. This view has been recently challenged on two main fronts. First, medieval intellectual histories like Nederman 2000 point out that advocates of religious toleration long predated the Renaissance and Reformation. Second, revisionists like Kaplan 2007 point to the dynamic forms of coexistence that people developed even in the absence of modern liberal intellectual defenses of toleration. Revisionists have also introduced a variety of new methods of cultural and social history to the study of religious toleration.

  • Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: Norton, 1965.

    Essential reading for the history of toleration. Originally published in 1931, Butterfield’s book criticizes so-called Whig historians, that is, historians who focus on identifying the origins of modern institutions and values. Gives particular attention to the relationship between the Reformation and religious toleration as a modern value.

  • Guggisberg, Hans R. “The Defence of Religious Toleration and Religious Liberty in Early Modern Europe: Arguments, Pressures and Consequence.” History of European Ideas 4.3 (1983): 35–50.

    DOI: 10.1016/0191--6599(83)90039--6

    Traces arguments used by advocates of religious toleration in Europe from the 16th to the 17th century. Distinguishes the more limited religious toleration from religious liberty, which did not gain adherents until the Enlightenment. Guggisberg makes similar claims in several other German-language writings that are worth consulting too.

  • Jordan, W. K. The Development of Religious Toleration in England. 4 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932–1940.

    Though widely critiqued now as Whiggish, this survey of religious toleration in England from 1558 to 1660 provides a useful introduction. Identifies the origins of toleration in the so-called “moderation” of the Elizabethan regime. For a contrary position, see Shagan 2011 (cited under Law and Practice: England).

  • Kamen, Henry. The Rise of Toleration. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

    A readable introduction to the history of religious toleration in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment for undergraduates or the general public. Offers a narrative that generally moves from intolerance of the Middle Ages to increasing toleration. Focuses on intellectual and legal forms of toleration.

  • Kaplan, Benjamin J. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007.

    The most authoritative survey of forms of religious coexistence. This revisionist treatment of religious toleration offers an alternative to teleological or Whiggish histories as well as histories that privilege intellectual history over social and cultural realities of Early Modern Europe.

  • Lecler, Joseph. Toleration and the Reformation. 2 vols. Translated by T. L. Weslow. London: Longmans, 1960.

    Originally published in French in 1955 as Histoire de la tolérance au siècle de la Réforme. An intellectual history of toleration that provides a counterpoint to Whiggish historians who find the origins of toleration in England and/or Protestantism. Still susceptible to the criticisms of revisionists like Kaplan 2007.

  • Nederman, Cary. Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100–c. 1550. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

    In contrast to those who find the origins of toleration in the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment, this book offers studies of seven advocates of religious toleration in the Middle Ages.

  • Zagorin, Perez. How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    Traces a transition from an era when persecution was the norm, in the Middle Ages, to a time when the idea of religious toleration became a dominant mode of thought in the late 17th century. Read in contrast with Kaplan 2007 and Nederman 2000.

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