Much has been written by scholars about the impact of Martin Luther’s reforms on the religious divisions of Europe, (the start of which is dated from October 31, 1517). Henceforth Western Europe divided into Catholic and Protestant (while Eastern Europe and Greece remained with Byzantine Orthodoxy).
But leaving the religious divisions to the scholars, I remain fascinated by the cultural differences which linger between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Protestant societies are said to drive more carefully – reflecting a concern for prudence – than Catholic societies, where a more easy-going, or even fatalist, attitude may prevail.
Protestant culture is famously focused on cleanliness – “cleanliness is next to godliness” being a traditional Protestant motto. The virtuous boast of the upright Ulster Protestant always used to be: “You could eat your dinner off my kitchen floor.”
When I visited Norway, I observed how spotlessly clean public lavatories were, notably on trains. A heritage, maybe, of Protestant culture.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote a classic book explaining these attitudes, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Protestants, he claimed, were better with money, because Calvinism stigmatised poverty, discouraged begging and promoted work and sobriety. Catholic societies tolerated begging as almsgiving, respected the poor (sometimes calling poverty “holy”) and were generally more happy-go-lucky. Protestant culture was technically progressive, but also more anxious. Catholics, said Weber, slept better because they were less worried about life in general.
This is now somewhat outdated (and it was pointed out that banking was invented in Catholic Lombardy), but I think there are aspects of European culture which still owe their colourings to Catholic and Protestant divisions. Commentators could understand Europe better if they grasped that Denmark is Lutheran in culture and Portugal is Catholic.
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